Jazz and Sandy Tucker were told that their idea to start a Jamaican restaurant in Harford County would not fly. Competition in the food service industry was fierce, and Jamaican cuisine was unfamiliar.
More than six years later, the married couple of 14 years has turned Island Spice Grille & Lounge into a popular eatery in Edgewood. The restaurant’s success has gratified Sandy Tucker.
“It’s a satisfying and humbling acceptance that people are taking to the food,” she said. “We feel very blessed.”
Sandy Tucker said her husband, who grew up in Jamaica, began whipping up Jamaican dishes for weddings, barbecues and other private functions. Guests “really took a liking to the cuisine,” she said. “We saw a need.”
In 2010, they hatched the idea for a restaurant and later purchased a vacant storefront next to Nu Look Cutz, a barbershop owned by Jazz Tucker. When the restaurant opened Aug. 24, 2014, the reception stunned Tucker.
“My mouth had dropped because seats were full and people were waiting,” he recalled. “I was like, ‘What do they know about this food?’ They said, ‘I go to Jamaica every year. I got married in Jamaica. I love the food. I love the culture.’ They know about my country just as much as I do.”
As the head chef, Tucker said the most popular items on the menu are jerk chicken, braised oxtail, rasta pasta (an “Italy-meets-Jamaica” dish of penne with jerk chicken, bell peppers and onions in a cream sauce), and escovitch snapper (a whole fried fish topped with spicy sauce and pickled vegetables). “We can’t even keep it in the restaurant,” he said of the fish.
An admitted perfectionist, Tucker drives as far as New York to buy ingredients and imports spices from Jamaica for recipes handed down by his mother and aunt. “I don’t cut corners,” he said.
Tucker said he usually arrives a few hours before the restaurant’s opening time of noon to prepare the ingredients and begin cooking. Nothing is pre-made, and there are two sentences on the eatery’s website reminding diners, “Our food is labor intensive and prepared to order. Your patience is appreciated.”
“I love to bring people together to eat my food and laugh and just taste a little bit of my culture,” he said. “And I’m very obsessed with that to where I come in the kitchen and create different menus, and then I like to see people taste it so that they can tell me what they think.”
In July, Eniko Hart, wife of film star and comedian Kevin Hart, and her family dined at the restaurant.
Katrina Waller, a permanent makeup artist and trainer from Abingdon, has been frequenting Island Spice at least four times a month for the past five years. She said the curry salmon and chicken soup remind her of the cuisine her Trinidadian mother made for her.
“The food is amazing, the drinks, the music,” Waller said. “Everyone just welcomes you with open arms. It’s just a pleasant environment all around. If you’re having a bad day, you go in there, and you immediately feel better.”
The couple is exploring the possibility of opening another restaurant in Baltimore. But Jazz Tucker said he and his wife are not taking the current location’s success for granted.
“Any business is a risk,” he said. “But it’s built on faith, and it gives us the strength to do what we wanted to do. We don’t take it lightly because we know that tomorrow, our doors could close. But the grace of God has kept us open to see six years.”