Southern food lovers in the Southwest are in luck: Downtown Mesa is now a destination for Memphis-style hot and spicy fried chicken.
Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken opened in Mesa in January, located in the downtown area next door to Oro Brewing Company on Main Street.
This is the first location of Gus’s Fried Chicken in Arizona, which is one of 31 locations across the country. The company plans to add two more locations in Phoenix and Tempe later this year.
The restaurant, first called Maggie’s Short Orders, got its start in 1973 when founders Napoleon “Na” Vanderbilt and his wife Maggie started selling their popular fried chicken in Mason, Tennessee, about 40 miles east of Memphis. When Vanderbilt’s son Vernon “Gus” Bonner took over the restaurant in 1984, he changed the name but kept the same chicken recipe that’s had a cult following for decades.
Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken has garnered scores of accolades and made countless “Best Fried Chicken” lists since the 1980s for its Memphis-style battered and spiced fried chicken.
When you walk into Gus’s Fried Chicken in Mesa, there is a sign that says, “Today’s special is chicken,” which, unsurprisingly, is meant as a joke.
The menu is crafted around the legendary chicken. The crispy, hot fried chicken can be purchased by the individual piece or in a plate combination. You can choose from pieces of white or dark meat, but for those who like boneless, chicken tenders are also available.
The chicken plate combinations come with baked beans, slaw and a slice of white bread. Other sides available in multiple sizes include greens, mac and cheese and potato salad.
For starters, there are options including fried green tomatoes, fried okra or fried pickles, and all come with a side of ranch.
In its first week of being open, despite winter rain and snow storms in Arizona, customers were clearly ready to head out and try some fried chicken — Gus’s was already busy. Take out orders can be placed in person or over the phone, but expect around a 30 minutes wait for your food because each piece of chicken is fried to order.
The fried pickles starter comes with six fried dill spears with a side of ranch dressing. The pickles are dunked in a thick, crunchy coating of batter and breadcrumbs. They strike the perfect balance of salt and tanginess from the dill and vinegar and richness from the fried coating and ranch dressing. There’s no hot and spicy seasoning in the pickles, making them a good prelude to the chicken that will start a slow burning fire in your mouth.
For the main event: I ordered a plate with three pieces of dark meat chicken, two thighs and one drumstick, and stuck with the prescribed sides of baked beans and slaw.
The recipe for the fried chicken at Gus’s is notoriously secret, but for decades internet chefs have been trying to deconstruct what makes this fried chicken so special. Is there starch in the batter? Is it the buttermilk marinade? The chicken’s crispy outside is almost like a brittle, deep reddish-brown colored shell. Biting into it, salt and fat from the crispy chicken skin are immediately apparent, but then you slowly start to feel the heat building from the cayenne.
The chicken is flavorful, moist and perfectly cooked, and as you eat more your mouth starts to tingle. You may need to blow your nose a few times. This chicken is definitely hot and spicy, but doesn’t veer into the territory of atomic-levels of spice so it should be suitable for anyone with a moderate tolerance.
The sides are straightforward but the ideal accompaniment to the spicy chicken. On their own, the beans and slaw might be considered basic and slightly sweet, but with your mouth pleasantly burning from the spicy chicken, they are a welcome addition. The beans are sweet, sticky and tangy while the slaw is a simple blend of cabbage, carrot and a light mayonnaise dressing like you’d find at a backyard barbecue.
I added an extra side of greens, which are stewed collard greens with onion and bacon to bring a little more tangy, smoky bitterness to the array. It’s worth nothing that while the beans and greens may seem vegetarian-friendly, they both contain meat.
Overall, it is worth lining up outside to wait for your chicken order, and there is no better time to enjoy the spice than these chilly Phoenix winter nights.
Where: 212 W. Main St., Mesa.
Offerings: Hot and spicy fried chicken.
Price: Three=piece dark meat chicken plate $11; Fried pickles $6.75; Medium side of greens $6.50.
Hours: Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. and Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Details: 480-590-0404, gusfriedchicken.com.
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