Suzani Asmelash Grant is a restaurateur with a mission.

She wants to introduce more Houstonians to the food of her homeland, Ethiopia, and she wants to raise $1 million for Ethiopian refugees in Sudan.

You’ll find Grant table-hopping at Lucy Ethiopian Restaurant & Lounge, 6800 Southwest Freeway, on many evenings. 

“How are you? It’s good to see you again,” Grant says to a man dining alone. After a few minutes, she moves to a middle-aged couple and spins the tale of tej, a beloved fermented honey wine, similar to mead, that has been brewed and consumed in Ethiopia for more than 3,000 years.

Lucy is a stylish space in the glow of crystal orb lighting. White banquettes line stand against red-painted walls and white flowing long curtains divide wooden tables facing a music stage, which has stood quiet since the pandemic. Grant says that Lucy has coped with Covid-19 restrictions better than many restaurants, thanks to loyal customers it has amassed since 2012. 

“We do a lot of to-go orders,” she adds.

Grant opened Lucy to provide jobs for her son, his wife, and other family members. She wanted to give them “a haven” and “I love to cook,” says Grant, who came up with the restaurant name after viewing the world’s most famous human ancestor and fossil when it was on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Her son, along with the grandchildren, has moved back to Ethiopia. But now, Grant has her sister helping with her latest venture: the modestly priced quick-service Horn of Africa Deli (5930 Renwick Drive, Suite B), which sells thousands of injera, the spongy Ethiopian flat bread, monthly to Houston’s growing Ethiopian population. 

Grant estimates that 10,000 Ethiopians live in the Houston area and anticipates more of her countrymen will settle here.

Recently, Grant flew to Sudan, where she visited the same refugee camp that she fled to more than three decades ago after escaping Ethiopia’s war-torn region, Tigray. At 22, with Catholic Charities’ help, she emigrated to Amsterdam, worked as a dishwasher, and then a cook at a café overlooking a tree-lined canal.

Now 55, she sees history repeating with thousands of Ethiopians fleeing to Sudan. Since last fall, fighting has ravaged Ethiopia’s northern region. Memories of war linger, reviving the fear and hurt she once endured. 

“War…It doesn’t go away,” Grant says. “As a refugee, it stays with you, so I had to go back to Sudan to see, to help.”

Grant’s goal is to raise $1 million to help the refugees.

”We’ll get there,” she says, referring to her husband, Gary Grant, whom she met in 2006 while she was working as a limousine driver in Las Vegas. 

In 2015, the couple started a charitable foundation to provide basics of life to the refugees. They have donated $200,000 of their own money to purchase food, medicine, and sanitation items for the women and children in the camps in Sudan. They’ve also recently launched The Lives You Save relief effort to raise more money for the estimated 60,000 such refugees.

In 1999, Grant and her teenage son had moved to the United States after vacationing in Las Vegas. They fell in love with Strip’s bright lights and moved to Nevada a few months later.  Grant went to school to learn techniques for blackjack and other casino games. She was hired by the newly opened Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino not for her card-shuffling skills or lack of, but for her ability to speak French.

Later, she took on a second job as a driver. Near the end of her shift one day, she was assigned to drive a Houston businessman. “That’s how I met my husband,” she says. They just celebrated their 15th anniversary.

At Lucy, an abstract painting of their wedding portrait hangs next to the lounge. Nearby, in the kitchen, meat and vegetable stews, orwots, bubble with berbere, a signature Ethiopian seasoning blend that includes medium-hot red chilies. Ethiopian food is fragrant with cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric, cloves, ginger, and coriander.

An Ethiopian menu can be overwhelming, so Grant suggests starting simple such as with a traditional vegetarian platter or a combination platter with beef, chicken, lamb, and vegetables. Her favorite meat dishes are minced fish with tomato-ginger sauce and grilled lamb with sauteed onions and tomatoes. 

 “We have so many spice blends, and everybody has their (favorite) recipes,” Grant says. “Here, I try to make my dishes in a very traditional way. I don’t make them for the American palate, although I give some dishes my twist.”

The skill of layering spices makes Ethiopian cooking ideal for the latest food trend.  

“Do you know what the newest trend in cooking is?” Grant asks. “Cooking without oil. We get a lot of requests for this. Luckily, with all the spices in Ethiopian food, we can make it work, and it is so flavorful. We use vegetables, broth, and spices only to amp up the food’s flavors. It’s delicious.”

Lucy Ethiopian Restaurant & Lounge, 6800 Southwest Freeway
www.lucyhouston.com

— By Dai Huynh