At 1 o'clock on a recent Tuesday the wait for a table at the 166-seat Islamorada Fish Co. was half an hour. There was even a wait at a long bar where hungry Jacks wearing caps festooned with emblem pins spilled over stools in front of a towering, 12,000-gallon saltwater fish tank.
A friend who is an accomplished catch-and-release fly fisherman explained the crowd: “This is Mecca.”
The huge chain restaurant is located inside a Bass Pro Shops' Outdoor World, a mall-sized big box store that is the first tenant in a planned 186-acre Winding Brook development at Interstate 95 and Lewistown Road in Hanover County.
Bass Pro Shops, spawned in a tackle shop in a corner of a liquor store in Springfield, Mo., in 1971, have grown to 60 locations from coast to coast, about half of which contain a restaurant named for a town in the Florida Keys famous for Key lime pie.
Through the years owner Johnny Morris has shared his profits with more than a dozen fishing and hunting organizations, such as Ducks Unlimited and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and wound up with access to 500,000 dues-paying outdoorsmen, which accounts for the loyal devotees, many with families in tow, making the pilgrimage to Hanover County.
The 150,000-square-foot, three-story emporium is an eye-popping experience that makes competitors look like convenience stores.
It's no fish story that, as the company describes it, Outdoor World is part museum, art and antique gallery, aquarium and entertainment center, crammed with 3,500 artifacts, mounts and memorabilia. The walls are covered with murals by Virginia artists and the floors bear imprints of elk, deer and bobcat tracks.
The first floor features a dealership-sized showroom of Bass Tracker boats selling for as much as $30,000, a NASCAR shop, clothing and footwear, a fly-fishing room and a general store where fudge is made.
A second, freshwater aquarium, two stories high, is stocked with 400 fish. Next to it is a pond with mammoth trout framing glass elevators that rise to a level devoted to hunters and campers.
A gun shop features case after case of handguns and racks with long guns for every occasion, including matching pink rifles for mothers and daughters.
Contributing to a carnival atmosphere are a 25-yard archery range and a coin-operated shooting forest where animals pop up among the bushes and animated deer frolic across a screen.
Now about the food.
Entrees start at $10, for popcorn shrimp, chicken and pasta, and climb to $30 for snow crab legs and lobster tail.
Soups, salads, appetizers and sandwiches are $6 to $12 and, in addition to fish, include buffalo burgers and venison-stuffed mushrooms. It's only a matter of time before PETA pickets show up.
The “world famous Islamorada” fish sandwich, grilled mahi-mahi with sautAced onion and melted American cheese (Velveeta?), was dry and the cheese seemed superfluous. Much better was the fish and chips, a beer-battered, flaky white fish with a crusty covering, accompanied by Old Bay-seasoned chips.
The Florida sampler trio of shrimp, wahoo and alligator was hit and miss. Four large shrimp, battered with coconut flakes, were enhanced with a sweet and spicy sauce. The wahoo was smoked then ground into a dip pleasingly seasoned with tomatoes, onions and lemon. The alligator, served in strips, was advertised as “tender wild caught” but was gristly, like overcooked squid, and lacking a distinctive taste. And no, it did not remind me of chicken. This would have been a good candidate for catch-and-release.
A classic New England clam chowder was crammed with clams, redskin potatoes and cream, and a traditional Cobb salad was generously adorned with shrimp (or chicken), avocado and egg slices and a sweet-raspberry vinaigrette. Bimini bread, a miniloaf smothered with melted butter and sugar, is the sweetest dough this town has seen since the demise of Julian's. The bread makes a diet-busting encore in a pudding bathed in dark rum sauce topped with vanilla-bean ice cream and caramel sauce.
The signature dessert, creamy Key lime pie served in an oversized cup, is buttressed by an excellent graham-cracker crust, topped with slices of cashew and a twisted lime. The dish is simultaneously tart and sweet, with emphasis on the tart.
Islamorada isn't gourmet fare, but nonetheless is a welcome, straightforward fish house in an eye-popping attraction that has no shortage of visitors. S
Islamorada Fish Co. ($$$ NS)
11550 Lakeridge Parkway, Ashland
Restaurant hours: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
Store hours: Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-9 p.m., Sunday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.