Back in the 70s, one of my kids worked weekends at KFC. He got home after midnight, often with a half-bucket of leftover chicken from the evening clean up. I got burned out on fried chicken and have eaten very little since then. But recently Robin, JC, and I dropped by one of Maplewood’s poultry hot spots: Gus’s World Famous Hot and Spicy Chicken.
People have been raving about Gus’s chicken for some while and I wanted to see what all the hubbub was about. The place was humming with folks who like their birds served spicy and surrounded with Southern side dishes. The Memphis-based chain, that has 17 locations in 10 states, recently gained inclusion in Yelp’s “Top 100 Places to Eat”—places you must try within your lifetime!
And . . . “Best of Memphis” recognized Gus’s with their “Best Fried Chicken” award this year. The restaurant was also featured on the Food Channel’s The Best Thing I Ever Ate. It all started in 1984 when Gus Bonner took over his parents’ Tennessee diner and used their same spicy recipe to grow the business.
The interior was Memphis redux, with the walls covered in reclaimed boards and large metal pipes hanging from the tin ceiling. Checkered tablecloths, mismatched chairs, funky art and neon advertisements further add to the ambiance. The specialty of the day was, well, uh. . . chicken, as it is every day—crispy, spicy, mahogany-colored chicken fried in peanut oil. Since the chicken is cooked to order, our server explained things take a bit longer.
You can get two pieces, three pieces or a half chicken served piping hot with barbecued beans and coleslaw and white bread, as tradition would have it. But there are other side dishes as well and I chose to go with the fried okra and potato salad. As to the spiciness of the chicken, Gus’s website says it’s not really intense, “The heat is more gentle, like the touch of an old friend.” Well put.
The pie selection sounded like those found on most holiday tables in the South: chocolate chess (it has a custard base), sweet potato, and pecan. At the time, Thanksgiving was just around the corner, so I deferred on dessert.
What Make Gus’s Chicken So Doggone Good?
Saveur thinks they may have duplicated Gus’s family recipe. The magazine version calls for soaking the chicken pieces in buttermilk for two hours and then shaking them in a plastic bag containing flour, paprika, cayenne pepper, salt, and pepper. Pieces are then fried in peanut oil. If that sounds like a simple recipe, it probably was back when the family sold fried chicken wrapped in two slices of bread. If you want to try Saveur’s recipe, here it is.
On the other hand, it would be a lot easier to just swing by Gus’s and enjoy the feel and taste of Southern-style cooking at your leisure and among those of like appetite.
St. Louis franchise owner Jim Zimmermann went from nibbling on his lunch to jumping up to clean a spill created by a youngster at the next table to helping distribute plates. During our visit, I noted that my ancestral immigrants to Virginia back in the early 1700s had the same surname, causing us to conclude that we might possibly be distant cousins.