Virginia weather has been mercurial, to say the least, this winter. At times sunny and unusually warm, at times gloomy and appropriately cold, this meteorological roller coaster ride may have you feeling a bit unsettled.
Let me prescribe, as the antidote to your climate change-induced woes, a little shot of temperate island weather. You won’t need a ticket to Hawaii or the Bahamas to find it. Whatever vision of tropical paradise you have in mind, Island Shrimp Co. — “ISCo,” for short — has the cure, one formulated with a healthy mix of seafood, coconut, pineapples and rum.
ISCo’s port of call is the Chesterfield Towne Center. This mall restaurant — docked right next to Casa del Barco, another of the Healy family’s eateries — could convincingly double as an islandy theme park, or perhaps the set from a Broadway revival of “Once on This Island.”
With the vibe of a Jack Johnson song and the color scheme of a Katy Perry music video, the restaurant is a multistory fortress of interlocking, bright-teal shipping containers, outfitted with tangerine orange chairs and candy pink and yellow accents. And no matter the season, outdoor seating is always available, thanks to a climate-controlled rooftop igloo.
The food appropriately matches the carefree island spirit of the restaurant, both in presentation and in substance. As folks back home in Hawaii might say: It’s easy eating, brah! Get yourself in the proper mood with some pineapple chili-glazed calamari ($10). Dredged in crumbly, fried breading, leggy and loopy bits of squid are snagged on crispy rice noodles piled up like white driftwood.
A barbecue sauce of the mango-habanero persuasion renders jerk chicken wings ($10) brighter, tangier and sweeter than most. The wings would make for a somewhat laid-back sort of pupu, save for that invigorating wave of heat that rolls ashore right as other flavors begin to recede from your palate.
Though I was originally skeptical of the poke nachos ($11), a concept that could’ve bordered on gimmicky, the dish, it turns out, is rather tasty — or “onolicious,” as they’d say in Hawaii. Ahi tuna, cubed like fresh watermelon, is interspersed with jalapeños and paper-thin radish slices and blitzed with Japanese furikake seasoning and Sriracha mayo — all of which meld together, in the most hammajang fashion, over fried wonton chips to form the nacho version of a spicy tuna roll.
Chunky conch fritters ($9), embedded with meaty hunks of mollusk, stand out among the appetizers. Somehow from out of its large industrial kitchen, the restaurant manages to produce a dish that easily feels as if it might’ve come from a balmy seaside shack in the Caribbean.
The restaurant, meanwhile, puts forward main dishes that evoke the kind of fare you’d want to bring with you on a day at the beach. The aloha boat ($16) is a certifiably Instagrammable homage to the garlic shrimp plates served out of trucks on the highway along Oahu’s North Shore. Loaded onto a hollowed-out hull of pineapple are scampi-like shrimp, plump and buttery but not riotously garlicky enough to pass for Hawaiian-style. They’re no less delightful, in any event. And, though the coconut rice that accompanies the shrimp is more distracting than anything else, with a sweetness better suited for tropical dessert, other accompaniments — li hing mui-cured pineapple wedges and mac salad as good as any plate-lunch mac salad I’ve ever had — help to lend cheery touches to this dish.
If you want some turf to go with your surf, consider the chicken curry bowl ($12). This Jamaican-inspired curry, cords of chicken electrified with fiery habaneros, comes with huge pucks of fry bread that taste like a breadier Chinese youtiao. Cozying up to the curry are some braised red cabbage and fried chickpeas, as well as a heap of coconut rice, which, while too dessert-like for the garlic shrimp, actually works here.
At times, some dishes can be a little too carefree for their own good. Tassels of banana leaf-wrapped kalua pork ($14), shriveled and dry, appear as if they’ve been tanning in the midday sun for far too long. Not even the pickled accents made to go with this dish can rehydrate what is essentially pork jerky.
Don’t expect much of a sweet finish from the malasadas ($6), either. Instead of being relaxed and pillowy in the center, they’re overworked and tense, with enough gluten to drive a horde of diet-conscious millennials to the brink of insanity. What ought to resemble fried Portuguese sugar doughnuts more loosely resemble over-fried Okinawan andagi.
The food mostly shines at this island-style eatery. But even when it doesn’t, it’s always sunny in ISCo. Lest you need the reminder, “No Bad Days Ahead” — ISCo’s relentlessly optimistic slogan — is emblazoned in big letters all throughout the restaurant. During one visit, the sky, gray and overcast on the drive over, had morphed into the most beautiful mai tai-colored sunset imaginable by the time my husband and I were seated at our table. I guess even the mercurial Virginia weather can’t beat those magical island vibes.
Justin Lo writes freelance reviews for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram @justinsjlo.