At Lucy's in South Austin, the bird is the word
The pies are a slice of heaven, but the star at this comfy spot run by owner of Olivia is its flavorful fried chicken
Sometimes a restaurant has a regularly occurring special so popular that the dish moves from weekly highlight to permanent menu fixture. The fried chicken at James Holmes' Olivia on South Lamar Boulevard has such a loyal following that it only seemed right the bird become a daily option.
But no matter how beloved the chicken is, it doesn't fit in with the scallops and petit filet on the menu at upscale Olivia. After Sunday brunch, the chicken is left standing at Olivia's window, peering inside at the precious quail.
So Holmes, a native of Abilene, threw on his work boots, loaded up his vintage pickup and headed over to South Congress Avenue to give his buttermilk fried chicken a permanent residency at a more fitting venue.
The picnic-style chicken at Olivia is served room temperature, but Holmes has already proven adept at serving up the piping-hot variety. His booth at the Austin City Limits Music Festival last summer had some of the longest lines at Zilker Park. And Holmes has not lost a step.
The fried chicken at Lucy's has few rivals in town, and the value is phenomenal. Four people could grab a bucket of chicken, throw back a few beers (Austin Beerworks in the can and Real Ale on tap) and still have enough money for cover charge at the Continental Club. And, before you ask, yes, the chickens are all antibiotic-free and fed vegetarian diets. The chicken comes with pickled jalapeños and dill pickles. All that's missing is a helping of homemade pimento cheese, and my holy trinity of fried chicken accoutrements would be complete. Individual sides can be ordered for less than $3. I prefer the smashed grilled potatoes ($2.25), splayed out like a lobster tail, and the balanced saltiness of the hammy black-eyed peas ($2.25).
Although the hot fried chicken might feel out of place at the more posh Olivia, it feels right at home at Lucy's. The modest former home of Nueva Onda on College Avenue announces itself boldly with a flashing neon sign featuring a leggy dame — part pinup model, part futuristic Kilgore Rangerette — holding a chicken leg. The building features an off-white architectural patchwork façade that cloaks an abundance of covered outdoor seating and open-air picnic tables, the faded greens, yellows and blues of the chairs the color of salvaged school seats from the 1970s.
The rustic wood and sheets of tin outside are echoed inside with large hanging light fixtures like industrial colanders and exposed orange lamps that give the feeling of a construction site. But this space is no work-in-progress. With a glass-backed bar giving the illusion of depth and dimension, a chalkboard wall with daily specials and cute, swiveling black chairs, Lucy's is consciously appointed and stylized without feeling overwrought. As much thought was likely given to the album covers on the bathroom walls: Marcia Ball, ZZ Top, Townes van Zandt and Willie Nelson represent not just the spirit of the joint but also the cuisine, with flavors ranging from the Texas Hill Country to the Rio Grande Valley and around the Gulf Coast into Louisiana.
Cajun and Gulf flavors populate the menu, but the undeniable star of the show at Lucy's is the fried chicken. A buttermilk brine penetrates the chicken for 24 hours, giving it a mild tartness. Fried to a rust-colored perfection, the knobby skin enshrines tangy, buttery meat made salty from a dash of soy sauce and piqued by cayenne and paprika. For $9 you can order a basket that comes with breast, thigh and leg served in red-and-white checkered paper. Buckets ($23.50 for about 15 pieces) serve four people comfortably, or you can go a la carte and get a breast ($4), thigh ($3), leg ($2) or wing ($1) individually.
So, the chicken is exceptional. But what about the rest of the food at Lucy's?
The generous portion of slippery fried chicken livers ($6) has a fresh blast of iron that the weak of heart can mitigate with a chipotle ranch sauce. But chicken livers are something you either love or don't. Deep-fried deviled eggs ($4.25) will likely have a wider fan base. The four eggs are bathed in buttermilk and fried to a crunchy bronze. The fried blanket suffocates much of the egg flavor, but some hot sauce in the creamy center does bring the dish alive. I enjoyed the fried eggs, though my traditionalist companion was left wishing Lucy's would also offer plain-ol' deviled eggs.
Tradition takes a back seat with the chicken boudin ($8.50), as well. The version found most often in Louisiana features coarse pork, but Lucy's once again calls on the bird. Here it is almost like a pâté – a very good pâté – in texture, sliding effortlessly from its reluctant casing. Served with crackers and Creole mustard, the boudin is best enjoyed with some dashes of Tears of Joy hot sauce.
Lucy's offers a daily sausage for $9, and on one lovely Texas winter afternoon made for outdoor dining, lamb sausage was on the menu. Though moist and bursting with lamb flavor, a kiss of pink and a few barely visible char marks indicated the sausage could have stayed on the grill an extra minute. Although I enjoyed the flavor of both the lamb and boudin, the prices seemed exorbitant, especially given the price of the chicken and the fact that other places, such as Easy Tiger, are cranking homemade links for only $4.
Almost as smooth as the boudin, the lamb sausage made me think maybe the grinder was locked on the same setting for all of the meats, an assumption reinforced with the West Texas Red Chili ($10.50). A fine grind of pork and ground beef, the greasy chili carried a nice blast of cumin and a mild heat, but the texture was mushy and homogenous. The chili is best enjoyed slathered on the crackers provided and topped with cheese, onions and jalapeño, like a mini open-faced Sloppy Joe.
Coastal influences at Lucy's are most prevalent in the Gulf oysters. Get a dozen for $13, a good value, or a half-dozen wood-grilled bivalves for the same price. I believe oysters are best enjoyed raw, especially gulf oysters, their iodine flavor reminiscent of your first oyster, your first illegal beer on a summer afternoon and the stolen beachside campfire kiss that comes later in the evening. Lucy's list of 10 specialty cocktails also hark back to Texas summers. The Lucy Basilia ($7) makes for a fine adult lemonade, a generous pour of Dripping Springs vodka given sunlight and glow from honey, lemon juice, basil leaves and blackberries.
The oak-grilled oysters come in five varieties, with the diablos ranking as my favorite. Shreds of orange habanero lace the top of the chewy meat, with bits of bacon adding a savory component. The diablos had a nice hint of smoke, but the Texan oysters were completely overwhelmed by the fumes that infused the sweet boar chorizo with an acrid taste. Chili sauce that tasted of sriracha burned up the more delicate notes of tequila, lime and cotija cheese on the Austin oysters. Lucy's should consider focusing its efforts on the fresh oysters and one or two varieties of the wood-grilled.
But Lucy's better not mess with their list of pie slices ($5) created by Olivia pastry chef Taff Mayberry. The oat streusel Shoofly and its ginger snap crust tastes like a gingerbread house with a massive, moist oatmeal-pie cookie crammed into the foyer. No campfire is needed for the marshmallow-like pillow-top meringue that floats above dense rich chocolate and the graham cracker crust of the s'mores. And a smooth and tart lime custard is spiced by a coriander-wafer crust and loaded with sweet whipped cream. The pies alone warrant multiple trips to Lucy's.
Holmes has created a venue for comforting flavors and an inviting and relaxing vibe, but I feel like Lucy's may be best served sticking to what it does best. Keep cranking out some of the best fried chicken, solid sides and transportable pies in town, add a salty whiff of Gulf air, sidle up a cold beer or (adult) lemonade next to it all and call it a day.
Lucy's Fried Chicken