Inside the front window of the new Fort Worth location of Gus’s Fried Chicken, the Memphis-based bastion of crispy poultry, a makeshift mural of coloring-book chickens greets guests.
Let’s take a moment and honor those kids who took one bite of the spicy chicken here and then abandoned their meals, resigned to coloring those chicks. Because of them, there is more for us.
The covetable chicken is the stuff of a top-secret recipe whose genesis dates to rural Tennessee more than six decades ago, when Gus’s parents first set up their roadside stand and served their soon-to-be legendary chicken wedged between two slices of white bread.
Fast-forward to the present, and Gus’s has 17 stores in 10 states (the only other Texas location is in Austin), all of which offer a simple lineup of a handful of fried appetizers, fried chicken and, this being a Southern joint, pies for dessert.
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Curiously quirky, the menu is divided into chicken plates with baked beans and coleslaw, individual pieces, specials (like the eight-piece dark special for $15.95) and snacks. Under the latter heading, you can find a 20-piece order ($44.95). That’s my kind of snack.
The fried pickles ($6.50) were six or so dill spears served in a paper tray and garnished with a plastic cup of ranch. If the presentation was lacking, the flavors more than made up for it. The thick shell-like batter was flecked with herbs and beyond crispy, proving the perfect complement to the slightly sour pickle. One dunk in the ranch, plus a dip in the tableside hot sauce, made for an excellent starter.
The half-chicken plate ($12.10) is for made for the hungry man. Or at least that’s what our server thought when he delivered it to my male dining partner instead of me. I got my friend’s three-tender plate ($8.75), lighter in hue but no less spicy.
His beans and slaw shared a sweetness that is inherent to the flavor pairings at Gus’s, which seemed to offset the pepper, to which I say: Good move.
Make no mistake, the chicken is not the Nashville-hot, crazy, I-dare-you-to-eat stuff. But most kids’ tongues might not take to it — and wimpier palates, perhaps, will find it problematic.
But the thick, knobby specimens that Gus’s kitchen produces, fried in peanut oil and (presumably) slathered in an array of spices, are so, so beautiful. No two legs or two thighs look the same, and I have a hunch that many diners are reduced to squabbling about whose breasts are bigger.
The phrase “piping hot” can be cliche but applies unwaveringly to the chicken, as if its fried exterior seeks to envelop and protect the meat inside from invading appetites.
But make sure to save room for many of the sides, which range from collard greens ($2.50-$9.75 for small to extra-large) to seasoned fries ($4-$5). I loved the potato salad, eggy and creamy, clotted with mustard and mayo. And the mac and cheese ($2.50-$9.75) leaned toward casserolelike in consistency, dense and exceedingly cheesy.
A slice of chess pie ($2.95) could have put us over the edge but was practically a foregone conclusion. Its buttermilk base yielded a spot-on custard and a buttery crust had me reaching for more than a few sips of sweet tea.
As I drank in the shabby-chic dining room, with its checkered plastic tablecloths, shiny subway tile, and random portraits of musicians like Willie Nelson and Robert Johnson, I found it full of a diverse crowd — healthcare workers, young families with babies in tow, large office groups — but all seemed to share one thing in common:
Everyone looked deliriously happy.