Monday, February 27, 2012

World Famous Fried Chicken - Gus's

Since today was an absolutely beautiful 70 degree day and I was working Downtown, at lunchtime I parked at the eastern edge of the Beale Street Historic District at Fourth and Beale for a leisurely four-block stroll to Front Street where Gus's Fried Chicken is located just a couple blocks south of Beale.

Seeing people enjoying the weather on various patios as I walked down Beale made me wish I could ditch work for the rest of the day. If you live in the Memphis area, make it a point to occasionally take off work on a weekday just to hang out Downtown while the sun is out and the crowds are gone. Sightsee, eat, drink, visit places like Sun Studio and the Belz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art, and generally act like a tourist doing whatever interests you most at the moment. It's easy to take the city for granted if you never slow down and enjoy it on your own terms

So many restaurants throw around the "world famous" adjective that it can start to seem meaningless. But at Gus's I heard the couple next to me tell the server, in an accent I couldn't identify, that they were wanting to try an American beer with their meal. This caused me to ask and find out that they were visiting from Zimbabwe and had heard how great the chicken was at Gus's. So "world famous" is no exaggeration at the humble-looking little fried chicken joint.

The prices are cheap for place with so much renown. My three-piece dark meat plate was only $6.50 and a white meat plate is $8.15. It amazes me that our phobia of natural fat has gotten so bad in this country that people will pay extra money for drier, less flavorful meat. 

It's actually not as fattening as you might think. To keep it reasonable I didn't eat the white bread served with the plate and just drank water. Despite the batter and the sweet slaw an hour after eating my blood sugar was 137. It's not health food, but it isn't near as fattening as a lot of the grain-heavy junk that gets billed as health food by processed food pushers either.

Does Gus's serve the best restaurant fried chicken in the world? I don't know, but the only restaurant I've been to personally that could compete is Willie Mae's Scotch House in New Orleans. Both restaurants got their names and secret recipes from now-deceased founding owners. At Willie Mae's the chicken has an extremely delicate, crispy crust that makes it a wonderful, crumbling mess to eat. And it is usually fittingly served with a side of red beans and rice. At Gus's a standard order of fried chicken comes, also fittingly, with the traditional barbecue restaurant sides of baked beans and cole slaw.

The slaw had an overly sweet taste to it and the beans seemed like plain old pork and beans from a can, but chicken it what draws people to Gus's from around the globe and it lives up to its reputation. It is fried in peanut oil while it has a much more substantial, chewy crust than the chicken at Willie Mae's, the skin isn't remotely tough and it still packs a satisfying crunch. Both restaurants have a great, subtly spicy kick to their batter that leaves you craving more after the bones have been picked clean. Which one is better? It's a waste of time to argue about it since the two places are 400 miles apart. They are definitely different, but in a way that makes "better" hard to qualify. Anyone who loves fried chicken should be in heaven at either place, and anyone who thinks that fried chicken isn't their thing should gain a new appreciation for it.

Of course, to really appreciate excellent fried chicken you have to experiment with cooking your own. I'm not sure what the secrets to the batter are at Gus's and Willie Mae's. I make some damn good fried chicken myself at home, and while the seasoning and crust taste great, the crust never has the uniform perfection of either restaurant's. I do like that Gus's uses peanut oil in place of the toxic, processed oils that are chemically extracted from the seeds of plants like corn, cotton, soy and canola. Peanut oil has about half of the heart-damaging polyunsaturated fats, which become trans fats when heated, as those oils. But when I fry chicken at home I use healthy, natural unhydrogenated pork lard, which only has a third of the polyunsaturated fat of the peanut oil.

Some of these got a little burnt on one side, but they still tasted great. With Gus's prices so affordable, it is hard to justify frying chicken at home in Memphis unless you just enjoy the hassle.

I soak my chicken pieces overnight in enough buttermilk to completely cover them (you can make buttermilk by adding a tablespoon of lemon juice per cup of regular milk to make it curdle).  After I drain them, I generously season them with a mix made from two tablespoons of kosher salt, two tablespoons of smoked paprika, two teaspoons of garlic powder and a teaspoon of cayenne pepper before dredging them in unbleached all-purpose flour. Then I fry them in pork lard in a cast iron dutch oven for 10 to 12 minutes per side. You can get the same results frying chicken in a cast iron skillet, but the higher sides on the dutch oven make things a lot less messy. While the resulting chicken is delicious, when all is said and done the kitchen is a wreck and I've spent more money than if I'd just gone to Gus's.

Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken on Urbanspoon

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