Fed Man 55: Lucy's Fried Chicken (37)

Mike Sutter’s Top 55 Austin Restaurants
No. 37: Lucy’s Fried Chicken
2218 College Ave., 512-297-2423; 5408 Burnet Road, 512-514-0664. www.lucysfriedchicken.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight daily.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 10.05.12
You can feel the restlessness behind Lucy’s Fried Chicken, like chef and founder James Holmes wanted to break the mold the minute the doors opened, the same way he did with his other restaurant, Olivia. Not just fried chicken, but an atmosphere that invites experimentation within the bounds of ice-house cuisine: oysters, gizzards and other exotic bits, chili and a tilt-a-whirl of daily specials. Tuesday is Steak Night and every day is pie-day.
They grill oysters here, a blasphemy to the purist but an expressive form for the serious cook. There are four standard grilled oysters — each with some expression of hot sauce and a few with pig parts — and a daily special, each variety $13 for a half-dozen. Ginger-beet pickled snails on the half-shell? I’m not ready for that, but the “Texan” oysters called out with an escargot-style presentation, with wild boar chorizo standing in for the snails in a tangle of garlic and hot sauce. It’s the best cooked oyster I’ve eaten for this Fed Man 55 series, letting the spicy sausage and minced garlic combine with a razor-edged hot sauce that doesn’t gang up on the oyster but propels it with grace into a new place.
Don’t get me wrong, they do just fine with the raw oysters, too, with a little briny oyster liquor left in those shallow Gulf shells as knobby as prehistoric coral, served with completely unnecessary but nevertheless enthralling horseradish cocktail sauce. They’re $13 a dozen or $2 apiece. From the bar, a Juicy Lucy ($6.50) makes a good jump starter for the oysters and anything else, a petite frozen margarita made with watermelon, which is beside the point in the wake of Lucy’s big agave burn. It’s the color of a blush, like it knows you should be drinking Texas beer with Texas oysters, and Lucy’s pours a lot of that at $4.50 a pint.
Lucy’s fried chicken is a picnic no matter where you are. The first time I tried it was a picnic of sorts: last year’s Austin City Limits Fest, when three pieces for $7 was the festival’s best food deal, a crunchy sit-down Sunday chicken feast at a sweaty outdoor palooza. It’s even better at the restaurant, where the slotted exterior panels look suspiciously like chicken crates. The burnt orange crust falls away in a salted shale, and the meat inside is dense and firm but not tough. It comes five pieces to a basket for $9. A wing, thigh, leg and a split breast.
With a few sides ($2.75 each) and a friend, it’s a full dinner. I’ll snag sweet potatoes anywhere, but Lucy’s kicks up the Thanksgiving novelty factory with a shot of sugary Mexican Coke. The other side of the flavor rainbow — tart and sour — was covered by big-leafed greens at a vinegar pep rally with loose shreds of fatty bacon as a down-country drum corps. In a town where greens are mostly an ironic afterthought, these taste like the real thing. A mom at the table next door said she orders Lucy’s cold fried chicken basket for picnics ($7.75 for three pieces with potato salad).
Lucy’s chicken-or-the-egg moment is a trio of deep-fried deviled eggs ($4.25). Their battered shells thump and crunch as if the boiled eggs had dreams of becoming skin-on fried chicken one day. The shell cradles a creamy yolk with more than the obligatory picnic-table dusting of paprika.
Earlier in the year, I talked about pie with Lucy’s pastry chef Taff Mayberry, who was handling the pies at the time. He’s moved over to Judges’ Hill since then, but he shared the recipe for Lucy’s dense, custard-style sweet-tea pie with Fed Man Walking before he left (see the recipe here), and his legacy continues to thrive in its decadent glory with hot-chocolate pie ($5.50 a slice), crowned by a broiled marshmallow the size of a cobblestone. It’s the best part of the slice, a campfire confection in service of a thick chocolate cream on an overly thick layer of crumbled chocolate crust.
If you can get past the self-conscious pearl-snap (and Pearl beer) irony, the sticky picnic tables and the dog-lover’s convention on the patio, Lucy’s is more than a one-note chicken shack. It’s a full basket.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants