Restaurant Reviews

Discovering Lucy

See more colorful photos from Lucy's dining room and kitchen in this week's slideshow.

It's not often you find yourself getting bottle service at a mesob, the woven round table that functions as the traditional serving structure at Ethiopian restaurants. It's short, small and close to the ground. You don't sit stiffly at a mesob, back straight and elbows off the table. You crouch over it in a huddle with friends, everyone attacking the communal plate at once with big, spongy sheets of injera bread and lifting huge portions of doro wot — a spicy chicken stew — or steamed greens to their mouths with relish.

And if you're eating at Lucy Ethiopian Restaurant & Lounge, so-named in a nod to Lucy herself — the famous Australopithecus afarensis skeleton found in Ethiopia's Awash Valley in 1974 — you can do all of that and get a bottle of champagne on ice to wash it all down while you watch couples dance in that shy, rhythmic, shoulder-bobbing East African way to the pulsing beat of modern Amharic artists too obscure for the Shazaam app on my iPhone to recognize. This is Lucy on a Saturday night, and it's an atmosphere unlike any other in Houston — energetic, vibrant, vital and totally ­addictive.

The modern Ethiopian music that Lucy blasts over its speakers is only one way in which the restaurant represents a new standard for the few Ethiopian restaurants in Houston. Lucy is inviting to Ethiopian expats and newcomers to the cuisine alike, thanks to a beautiful build-out inside an old Shoney's on the Southwest Freeway that completely masks its roots. The tall ceilings in the main dining room are lined with clean, chic, almost Nordic-looking wooden planks from which drip mid-century-style crystal chandeliers. The bar is equally chic, gem-toned bottles of liquor lining glass shelves all the way to the ceiling, matching the candy-colored neon lights that illuminate an attached lounge, where white leather chairs mingle with those colorful woven mesobs.

Nearby, a small doorway admits you to an even loungier portion of Lucy, where you'll find people clustered in tight, smiling groups on low-slung banquettes and grounded pillows while they eat. I've yet to visit Lucy when this lounge isn't packed — which means I've yet to eat in there myself.

The bright, colorful sign in the parking lot speaks to a very Houstonian way of life that's often replicated inside. The restaurant shares a lot with a used-car dealership, which advertises in both Spanish and broken Spanglish: "Cars, trocas, diesel. Venta y financiamos." Underneath those green and orange ads are red and white signs for Lucy, in both English and Amharic. It's the Bayou City tapestry in a nutshell.

Inside, you'll find not just Ethiopians but whites, Hispanics, Asians and African-Americans enjoying a meal — something that's a far bit rarer at other Ethiopian joints in town such as Blue Nile or Sheba. Intermingled with the Amharic dance music on Friday and Saturday nights, when Lucy stays open until 2 a.m. are rap artists like V.I.C. and Latin singers like ­Amarfis and Juano, encouraging people to dance in the middle of the dining room, cleared of tables to make way for bodies in motion. And on Lucy's menu, you'll find not only Ethiopian standards like kitfo and tibs, but also more mainstream items such as a hamburger topped with spicy awaze mayonnaise and a New York strip steak served with a baked potato and ­vegetables.

Blue Nile, which leans toward the more traditional end of the limited Ethiopian spectrum in Houston, was where I had my first meal of injera and doro wot that wasn't made by a friend's hands in her own kitchen. It's where I learned to love the cuisine and where I experimented excitedly with new dishes every time I visited. But after a while, visiting became a bit expensive and portions became a bit smaller, although the food remained as good as ever. And so I stopped going as often as I once did.

I was hesitant, for this reason, to try Lucy. I didn't want to fall head-over-heels in love with the food — as I did at Blue Nile — and find myself reluctant to go, to spend a huge amount of money with each visit. The upscale, modern trappings of the restaurant had me convinced on my first visit that it would be even more expensive than my old favorite. So I was pleased to find yet another reason that Lucy is the ideal place to take both newcomers and longtime fans of the cuisine: My group of seven people on that first night absolutely destroyed a table full of food, a bottle of wine, multiple soft drinks and baskets of injera bread for only $35 a person...including tax and tip.

And the portions were far from miserly. Where you would once get a platter of lentils and greens and cabbage all piled high and overlapping onto each other at other Ethiopian restaurants, now it's more common to see several inches of room between each spoonful of food. The food at Lucy, however, came out hot, fresh and in heaping portions. So big were the portions on the combo plates we ordered, in fact, that we only finished a little over half of the food on our table.

The kitfo — one dish that a few folks were nervous about ordering — was a huge hit, the raw beef so well seasoned that one friend remarked he'd never know it was the Ethiopian version of steak tartare. Our vegetarian combo platters contained bright, jewel-toned scoops of red and yellow lentils, dark green collard greens, savory stewed cabbage and the tangy, tomato-and-jalapeño-laced salad I love so much, all of it deeply seasoned with fragrant garlic and ginger.

And the doro wat, my personal favorite, had that signature deep red hue from the berbere spice mix used to impart a dusky spiciness to the stewed chicken, the same deep red color that always stains my fingers through the sheets of tart injera bread used as edible spoons. And the bread kept coming, something I appreciated considering that many places have started charging for extra baskets of the stuff.

On another visit, I was pleased to find the food again in huge portions and branched out even further to dishes I'd never tried in the past: fish dulet, finely flaked fish in a curry rich with mitmita, the spice blend that's warmed by cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, cumin and spicy peri peri peppers; lega yebeg tibs, cubes of dusky lamb meat stir-fried with rosemary, garlic and onions; and gored gored, the chunkier version of kitfo that sees raw cubes of beef dipped ever so lightly in more of that fiery red mitmita sauce.

I'd taken with me on that visit a neophyte, someone who'd never so much as even considered Ethiopian food prior to his trip to Lucy. On my first visit, my friends brought along their curious five-year-old, also new to Ethiopian cuisine (as five-year-old American children tend to be). Neither newbie was confounded by the food; both took to it like ducks to water, eagerly tucking in with their fingers — an action as easy and primitive as breathing — finding a surprising level of comfort in the familiar meats and vegetables, in the spice blends that aren't too different from Indian or Italian or any number of other cuisines we eat every day.

Lucy encourages this simple act of discovery through its modern, accessible atmosphere; its kind and helpful service; its easy-on-the-wallet prices; and its generous portions. And if you go on a Saturday night, you'll get the added bonus of being able to dance it all off after your meal.

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Katharine Shilcutt