Gus’s Fried Chicken Adds A Little Tennessee Flavor To Houston
One of the most important things that determines how a batch of fried chicken turns out is the batter. Will it fry up to an exterior of crunchy little nubs or end up with a more shatteringly crisp coating? The latter is what Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken has brought to Houston, a city where bumpy, Southern-style crusts are more traditional. It’s located at 1815 Washington Avenue, just across the street from B&B Butchers.
According to Gus’s official company history, the legendary fried chicken recipe was invented by Napoleon “Na” Vanderbilt in 1953. He and wife Maggie sold pieces between two slices of white bread out of the back door of a tavern in Mason, Tennessee, a town about 40 miles from Memphis. With material donations from the community, the couple was finally able to open a real restaurant in 1973 called Maggie’s Short Orders. The couple died in the early ’80s but Na’s only son Vernon “Gus” Bonner carried on the family business, reopening as “Gus’s World Famous Hot and Spicy Fried Chicken.” (The name’s a little shorter now and, by Texas standards, it ain’t that spicy.)
In 2016, GQ Magazine declared Gus’s as having “the best fried chicken in the world.” That declaration is a bit of a stretch. “Best” is an incredibly subjective designation. Deem it “among the best,” though, and we can agree. Biting into a piece of hot Gus’s fried chicken is an exceptional experience. Breaking through the brittle, salty crust reveals hot juices and tender meat with flavor that goes through and through. That comes from brining, a very important process that elevates this style above fried chicken with seasoning that only goes “skin deep.”
While a Gus’s employee didn’t want to say much (after all, the Gus’s recipe is a famous “secret”), he did confirm that the chicken sits in a buttermilk brine (or slurry, as fried chicken blogger Jay Francis believes it is) for 48 hours.
The side dishes comprise a lineup of quintessential southern accompaniments: cole slaw, potato salad, fried okra and more. Unlike many fried chicken joints that just phone in their mac and cheese (and are far too stingy with the actual cheese), Gus’s is creamy and rich enough to be worth eating. The slaw and beans are only slightly on the sweet side by design to offset the slightly spicy fried chicken. The greens are especially good, bathed in the kind of swarthy, meaty pot liquor that could be consumed like a hot and savory digestif.
Just kidding — we’re not actually recommending that a shot of that reviving broth is the end of the meal. The proper conclusion is having a slice of the excellent sweet potato pie. A proper, flaky crust is filled with a lightly sweet mixture that is not as rich as a custard yet still smooth. Most importantly, it’s not heavy. After all the last thing a diner needs after all those sides and the fried chicken is to be weighed down.
There’s a humble beer selection to drink alongside. Thankfully, selections from 8th Wonder Brewery, Austin Eastcider and Saint Arnold Brewing Company save an otherwise lackluster list. For the low, low price of $300, a group of revelers can splurge on the single wine on the list: a bottle of Dom Perignon. (Honestly, though, any Houstonian should know by now that a much more affordable Champagne and fried chicken pairing is just down the street at Max’s Wine Dive, which practically invented that idea.)
If there is any big problem at the new Houston location of Gus’s, it’s the parking lot. The parking lot situation along Washington Avenue has been tough for many years and all this already-popular restaurant has is a small lot on the left side of the building with maybe 20 spaces. That means once the lot is full, the only options are to park in front of Gus’s on Washington (shudder) or navigate to park on the residential side behind the building.
Like burgers, ramen and poke, Houston can’t seem to get enough fried chicken and Gus’s world-renowned mystique will keep residents coming in droves. Most likely, those trying this hallmark style for the first time are going to leave as new fans who are a little grateful to have the crunchy-crusted, Memphis-style fried chicken available in their own town.
Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken at 1815 Washington Avenue in Houston is open Sundays through Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.