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Sometimes life takes unexpected turns, as Johnny Ray recently discovered. Formerly an employee of the Fairfax County Public School system, Ray had been a part-time caterer for four years as well. He specialized in his brand of soul food and in barbecue, serving food at private events such as weddings and baby showers in Northern Virginia and parts of Maryland. Although not a professional chef, he loved cooking and had grown up in a household in which both his mother and grandmother presented good home food.

Then some months ago at a dinner party in his own home, a friend joked, “’I’ll give you $5 for your fish sandwich,’” said Ray. Ironically, at about that time his present Herndon space became open and affordable, and the career switch became irresistible. Six months ago, as it has turned out, Ray opened the rather enticingly named, Johnny Ray’s Sultry Soul Food restaurant.

Johnny Ray’s Sultry Soul Food,

1141 Elden St., Herndon

Telephone: 703-657-2772.

Hours: Open daily, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Why that name? Well, he answered, “I like food that is hot, so my goal is to serve good hot food for eating in and taking out.” It seems his formula has struck a chord with the locals, for a steady stream of patrons come in in the early part of the week, and that turns into bigger crowds on the weekend.

According to Ray, the most popular dish is the fried fish, which consists of either tilapia or catfish fillets that are battered and fried to a crispy golden finish. “It’s a nice balance,” he said. “The fish are both moist and flaky/crispy. I also do grilled salmon, which is also very popular.”

A dyed-in-the-wool Southerner has raved about the smothered pork chop—something he orders for lunch takeout at least once a week—which comes with onions and a rich, creamy gravy. But chicken lovers will delight in the fried chicken, covered with a tantalizingly crunchy-peppery coating that makes the mouth sing. “I use seven different peppers in the coating,” he said. All entrées come with a choice of sides, from collards and mac & cheese to green beans and crunchy fried okra.

Then there’s dessert: generally patrons will find the classic yellow cake with chocolate icing, pecan pie, German chocolate cake, and the beloved Southern sweet, sweet potato pie. “With this recipe,” said Ray, “I tweaked it with brown sugar.” And for his other recipes, Ray has taken his mother’s and grandmother’s dishes and put his own spin on them. “I add and take away ingredients,” he said.

Although many of his dishes are from family recipes, Ray said that his parents have not yet been able to visit from their home in Missouri. But his local family does visit often, and his wife still finds it hard to believe that Ray’s name is in lights. Even Ray’s young daughter loves the restaurant, coming in as often as possible to help out around the place.

Ray loves it, too. “I wouldn’t change one thing,” he said. “I am having the time of my life, and having people taste my food is wonderful. I look forward to working here every day.”

Johnny Ray’s Cole Slaw

Ray says this is also one of the restaurant’s very popular dishes.

Serves 4 to 6

1 head cabbage, cored and chopped

2 cups mayonnaise

½ cup Miracle Whip

1/3 cup diced onion

1/3 cup chow chow

Salt and pepper to taste

Mix all together and serve.