Alicia Cox is getting ready for summer, but she’s not waxing down her surfboard or working on a tan.
Cox is CEO of Prjkt Restaurant Group, which operates the concessions at Bolsa Chica and Huntington State Beaches.
Her popular SeaLegs at the Beach and The Huntington Beach House (opened in 2021) as well as her Sahara Sandbar & Pizza (unveiled last year) have reopened for the 2023 summer season.
Cox said that more than 11 million visitors making their way to Huntington Beach each year, and she’s ready for the onslaught of tourists.
“We are recreating the way people recreate,” Cox said during a lunchtime interview at Huntington Beach House. “We are enriching what the experience is when you come to these beaches.
You can rent an electric bike and go from Newport to Sunset Beach, and every experience along the way, whether it’s food, entertainment, the vibe, the energy, the photo moments, the art installation.
“It’s a part of things you check off when you visit OC and Huntington Beach,” she said.
“Other countries have beach clubs and showcase their beach culture. We are showing what it’s like to come to OC. It’s an interpretation of the California vibe and our beach culture.”
Winter Menu Refreshes
The concessions that Cox operates are a far cry from what most people expect when they come to the beach.
The Huntington Beach House offers an extensive menu that ranges from wings and nachos to birria ramen, Baja tacos and ahi poke bowl. A variety of cocktails are also available, and beachgoers can rent Adirondack chairs with a firepit and firewood.
Sahara Sandbar & Pizza specializes in pizza by the slice and also entire 18-inch pizzas ranging from simple margherita or pepperoni to exotic pies with pork sausage or brie and pear.
There are always new menu items, Cox said.
“We close over the winter and I can rest and rethink, recreate and redesign,” Cox said. “It’s important to start with good ingredients. People expect to get something cheap and easy at the beach, which is what a lot of people serve.
We take the extra step and think about what people want to eat at the beach. The beach speaks to everyone, so what types of food can we showcase at each location.”
Although she has been in the restaurant business for many years, Cox said she had never ventured into Italian cuisine, especially pizza. So before opening Sahara Sandbar & Pizza, she hosted pizza parties to dissect pizzas.
“We got pizza from every great pizza place in LA, go to my house, and take notes of what it was that made a pizza so good. It broke down to a few things: good ingredients and love.”
Because of the variations of temperature and humidity at the beach, Cox enlisted the help of a chef from the south of Italy to create recipes.
“Our pizza is thinner in the middle and thicker on the outside,” Cox said. “We decided who has the best sauce, the best cheese, how to cut the cheese. We hope people can taste the love and passion.”
At SeaLegs, her flagship concession at Bolsa Chica State Beach, Cox has launched an updated menu that includes pulled pork sandwich, barbecue sausage bites, churro waffles and a Kings Hawaiian Monte Cristo sandwich.
There’s also a doggy dog brunch on Saturdays, Brunch with the Beatles on Sundays, and live music all weekend.
Visit www.prjktgroup.com for more details about each location and to learn how to book a reservation, or visit sealegsatthebeach.com, thehbhouse.com, saharasandbar.com.
The OCBJ Review: by Christopher Trela
To celebrate his appearance on Season 20 of “Top Chef,” Amar Santana hosted a special media luncheon on April 28 featuring several of his better-received dishes from Top Chef.
Debra Gunn Downing, executive director of marketing at South Coast Plaza, welcomed guests to the luncheon at Vaca and noted that South Coast Plaza’s history with Santana goes back to 2008 when he was hand-selected by Charlie Palmer to open his namesake restaurant at Bloomingdale’s.
“When that concept ended, we were fortunate to have Amar come here and create Vaca as part of South Coast Plaza’s restaurant,” Downing said.
Santana was born in the Dominican Republic and immigrated to the U.S. at 13. He began his culinary career at 16 and has been mentored by some of the world’s most renowned chefs, who helped him develop his skills of expressing his passion through food.
“By combining flavors and culinary traditions from all over the world, Chef Santana provides an unforgettable gastronomical experience,” notes his bio on the Top Chef website.
The lunch he hosted was also unforgettable. It began with tray passed hors d’oeuvres including white asparagus gazpacho and caviar.
Course one was ahi tuna crudo with tahini-tamarind sauce, gooseberry, Santa Barbara sea urchin, perilla and crispy wild rice.
Course two was a dish Santana made on episode seven of Top Chef Season 20: herb roasted yellow plantain with miso butterscotch, crispy bacon, stilton blue cheese, and crispy plantain.
“The course I did that day I had no clue what I was going to do,” Santana said. “I decided to do yellow plantains with brown butter and rosemary, and bananas, butterscotch, and crispy bacon. It was a really good dish.”
Make that a really great dish. The blending of ingredients created a distinctly decadent taste sensation that had had my taste buds craving more. I wanted to order a gallon of miso butterscotch to go.
Course three was a dish that Santana created for episode five: Moroccan braised lamb shank with prune, cinnamon, sweet onion and toasted almond.
“On the show everyone is looking at me, this American guy with big portions,” Santana recalled. “The Mexican judge tried the prunes before she sat down and said it was sweet, but I said the lamb is savory.”
When it came time to render a verdict, that judge repeatedly mumbled “amor, amor, amor,” according to Santana, who added the dish to his menu at Broadway by Amar Santana after the episode aired.
Our final course, dessert, was from Episode six: Mama Santana’s flan with rum raisin, pineapple and sage.
It was a standout for that TV episode, and a winning end to the meal at Vaca.
Vaca: 695 Town Center Drive, Ste. 170, Costa Mesa, (714) 463-6060, vacarestaurant.com
Broadway by Amar Santana: 328 Glenneyre St., Laguna Beach, (949) 715-8234, broadwaybyamarsantana.com