Coming to Memphis, TN for TravelCon 2022, some fellow YouTubers had worked out well in advance where they were going to eat and chewed through their foodie hitlist one by one. All I knew was that I wanted to try proper Memphis barbecue (stay tuned for that blog!) and to get myself some fried chicken.
Gus’s Fried Chicken has become so popular in the US that it has 34 storefronts in 14 American states. Some of them, like this one, are franchises. To the outsider, the numbers tilt towards the corporate but this outlet feels anything but big chain, whether in the origin story of this brand or its Memphis Front Street location.
Started from the back door of a tavern in Mason, TN by Napoleon “Na” Vanderbilt, and his wife, Ms. Maggie, this unique fried chicken recipe has taken on legendary status resulting in long lines at the Memphis branch of both locals and visitors anxious to get their taste on in this characterful and busy room, open to the busy kitchen beyond, where glimpses of deep fried golden goodness glisten in mesh frying baskets lifted fresh from the hot peanut oil.
We pored over the menu unsure what to order or how much. Inevitably, we overdid it. But better to have something to take home other than a wish for one more piece.
Plates come with sides of coleslaw and baked beans and a piece of white bread. Now I’m not a fan of baked beans with chicken (I love them in isolation on toast with smears of salted butter and flecks of black pepper) so I swapped out for mac and cheese. My companion in Memphis, Kerry (blogger at Corks & Tacos), swapped out for collard greens.
Once orders were in, the length of the ‘to go’ line and the queue yet to be seated gave us a hint it might take a while. And it did, close to 30 minutes.
We watched each team member emerging from the kitchen, waiting for a sign! Gus’s servers wear bright branded tee-shirts and – despite the wait – they kept us smiling and informed. Customers in the US wait differently than their European counterparts. There is a little more calmness, a polite eyebrow raised to the server who is careful to manage expectations and keep your fountain drink topped up. This patience is a skill I don’t quite possess.
Kerry and I swapped stories of hanger, and it seemed that I had way more examples to pull from. I am a simple man who needs feeding, like a dog, at regular intervals! But for real, I think there’s an opportunity here to upsell something faster to prepare, perhaps a popcorn chicken appetiser, at least something which is consistent with the brand. Keep ’em chewing, and paying, I say!
Before long, two heaped paper plates groaned their way towards us and our smiles widened. The spicy, hot, crisp aromas activate your salivary glands as the meal hit the blue-chequered tablecloth.
But this particular chicken plate sets up something of a problem. It issues a list of challenges to every other piece of fried chicken that you will eat in future:
- How crunchy is the skin and spicy exterior?
- Has the meat cooked through but maintained a juicy and flavourful texture?
- How generous is the plateful?
- Did my server just smile at me?
I think the secret to everything (except the server, who remains a mystery) is the spice rub. Or probably the use of peanut oil at a super high temperature. Or the atmosphere. Darn it, I don’t know WHAT the secret is! It’s a taste I just loved. But… not everything reaches the same heights.
The success of Gus’s rides or dies on its single core product, done well. They have that perfected and they know it. The staff have the self-confidence that it’s worth waiting for and that people will be licking their fingers.
Sides, on the other hand, were, well, adequate. My mac and cheese lacked a pinch of seasoning and the cheesy oomph their name promises. Kerry said her greens were “unenthusiastic”. The coleslaw fared better, a little sweeter than a European coleslaw but with a generous hand which heaped in the mayonnaise, giving a creamy and acidic finish.
We left behind a heap of well-sucked bones and flakes of white cabbage that escaped the sweeping tines of the plastic forks. The total bill came to just north of $40 for two people including tip, an absolute steal for the amount of enjoyment we extracted from this visit. As we handed over our dollar bills and thanked our server, I heard for the first time a phrase that became synonymous with my visit to Memphis: “I appreciate you”. Well, we appreciate you, Gus’s, and we will be back.