Joyce Harris of Fair Oaks didn't particularly plan on opening a restaurant. She was looking for a kitchen to manufacture her original recipe for Gold Coast Hot Sauce.
Instead, she found a site to rent in the Marketplace at Centre Ridge Shopping Center, and Joyce's African Caribbean Restaurant was born. It's at 6349 Multiplex Drive; hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 4-9:30 p.m., and Sunday, noon-7 p.m. — including a Sunday, all-you-can-eat buffet from noon-4 p.m.
Cheerfully decorated in reds, greens and yellows, with upbeat West African, reggae and South American music in the background, Joyce's is a real alternative to other types of cuisines. And since it opened last fall, it's proven a big hit with the customers.
"I've had people come in here, not sure of the cuisine," said Harris. "They order a Jamaican pattie, go to their car and take a bite, come back and order a whole dinner."
She was born in Ghana and raised in England on Caribbean food because London had a huge Caribbean population. "So I was raised on both cuisines and was always fascinated with them," she said. It's only natural, then, that both are featured in her restaurant. And she's been delighted to discover how many Caribbean people live in the Centreville area.
"Business has been wonderful," said Harris. "People were very excited to find a place where they could get Jamaican patties and goat curry." She makes the latter dish, herself — as well as everything else in the restaurant — with the exception of the patties, which come from New York. They're bread pastry filled with meat and, she explained, "You have to get the right bakery to make it to get the authentic taste."
She and her husband Raymond own the restaurant and have twin sons, Daniel and Isaac, 6. Raymond works in sports marketing and she's a former software engineer at AOL. Now, she's the chef for Joyce's. "I can taste food, analyze it and cook it," she said.
Harris learned catering while waitressing in fine-dining establishments during college. She got formal culinary training from Macaroni Grill in Reston, which she managed in 1996. She loves cooking and catered events for her church and for GMU. And she'd developed a unique hot sauce (which she sells in her restaurant for $6 per 8-ounce jar) in beef, chicken and shrimp flavors.
"I use it in most of my dishes, and my husband suggested opening up a restaurant," said Harris. "So we took our savings and did it. Now I make the sauce here in the kitchen."
From Tysons Corner to Leesburg to Alexandria, she said, "There's no restaurant like this in this area, with this combination of cuisine." Joyce's offers appetizers, salads, side dishes, entrees and desserts, as well as Jamaican soda in pineapple, orange and ginger beer flavors. And the most expensive entrees are just $7.95.
Signature dishes are peanut sauce stew, jerk chicken and curried goat. "When I first opened, I didn't have goat on the menu because I didn't know how it would be received," said Harris. "Then, the first week, about 10 Caribbeans came in and asked for it, and I thought, 'OK, goat is on the menu.'"
Reflecting the tastes of Ghana, the peanut sauce stew is a hearty mixture of chicken or beef cooked with tomatoes, spices and peanut sauce. Said Harris: "You will not find peanut sauce stew anywhere else in Northern Virginia." And jerk chicken — or beef — is a highly flavored, Caribbean favorite and may be served mild or spicy.
Kate and Rick Dalby of Catharpin recently ate at Joyce's for their second time and, said, Kate, "If it's not good, I don't go back a second time." She and her husband shared a jerk beef salad and peanut sauce stew and raved about their meal.
"The salad was very good and spicy, and the beef was particularly tender," she said. "And the chicken in the stew was tender and moist. I would definitely recommend Joyce's to others because of the good food and friendly atmosphere."
Rick said the salad was so tasty that "even a guy loved it. The beef, with her homemade vinaigrette dressing, is so good that you don't even notice the vegetables." Still, he added, "The quality of the ingredients is obvious, and the stew had a unique flavor. It was a completely new taste — a mixture of hot sauce and peanut sauce. And the Gold Coast Hot Sauce is so good that I bought a jar to take home."
The Dalbys first came to the Sunday buffet. "The plates were packed, and people couldn't get enough," said Rick. "And Joyce's spicy scallops were so good," added his wife. What brings them back, said Rick, is that "the food is great, and so interesting. Joyce comes out and hangs out with her customers, and a neat mix of people from different ethnic groups come in here."
Other signature dishes include the Jamaican patties, good as snacks or appetizers; fried plantains, served fried and salted; kalewele, fried plantains with ginger and spices; and coco bread, a slightly sweet, Jamaican bread. "You put a Jamaican pattie inside it and it can be a meal," said Harris. "Children love it, too."
The restaurant offers take-out (call 703-988-9316) and will deliver within a three-mile radius. "And we do a lot of lunchbox catering — sometimes as many as 150 [orders] on a Saturday," said Harris.
It includes jerk chicken, rice and peas (red beans), plus black-eyed-pea stew (sautéed in olive oil with chunks of onion, tomatoes and spices). Or customers may order a lunchbox containing a jerk-chicken wrap (with cucumber and pesto mayonnaise inside a flour tortilla) with jolof rice (cooked in tomato sauce with spices in olive oil).
"We need 48 hours notice because everything has to be marinated to bring out the flavor," said Harris. "If they order 30 lunchboxes, they're $5.50 each." Joyce's also does mini-catering, whipping up dinner for 10 — appetizer, entree and dessert — with no notice. And the baked, jerk-seasoned, chicken wings — "Very healthy, no flour or oil" — are popular for party platters.
Customer Peter Moten also loves Joyce's. "I'm African-American, from New York City, and I know what good West African Caribbean food tastes like," he said. After eating a Jamaican pattie, he said, "The beef's not too salty and the crust is nice and even — it melts in your mouth so you taste the meat more."
Harris also makes incredibly moist homemade cakes — the chocolate one is topped with whipped cream and chocolate syrup, and the yellow one is butterscotch flavor, with whipped cream and butterscotch syrup. Or try the British pancakes made with lemon and sugar, filled with ice cream and topped with whipped cream and caramel sauce.
Harris says she gets the most satisfaction from offering quality food and "seeing the excitement on people's faces as they enjoy it."