Dining Guide to Local Austin Restaurants
DINING PICK: GUS’S WORLD FAMOUS FRIED CHICKEN
Smack in the middle of shiny downtown Austin, you can dig into crispy fried chicken with a soulful history.
There are certain foods that travel well from the cities where they’re born (think Parisian macarons), while others get lost in translation (Four-Way Cincinnati Chili, anyone?). With the recently opened Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, owners Janet and Brad Blodgett are hoping Memphis spicy fried chicken lands in the former category.
Fried chicken is certainly not new to Austin, but the chicken at Gus’s is different. In Mason, Tennessee, a back-road town east of Memphis, you’ll find the original Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken—a blues-fueled joint with cinder-block walls, the kind of no-frills place with food so good that people drive way out of their way to get to it. Like many other small Southern towns, Mason finds itself emptier with each passing year, its soul fading like a jukebox winding down. So the Bonners, Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken’s founding family, decided to franchise the secret-recipe batter in locations across the South.
Brad Blodgett, a former bond trader, grew up in Memphis, but he didn’t grow up eating Gus’s chicken. It wasn’t until friends opened the first Gus’s franchise on Memphis’s Front Street that he had his fried-chicken revelation. “Until I tried Gus’s, I didn’t realize how much I missed real Southern fried chicken,” he says. “Fried chicken is kind of primal—it can take you back to a past you didn’t even have.” Over the years, in his new hometown of Houston, Brad tried to re-create that revelatory experience in his own kitchen, and though he got close, it was always missing something. “I wasn’t looking to get into the restaurant business,” he says with a laugh, “but since the recipe was a closely guarded family business secret, it was the only way I could get this chicken.” So after a move to Austin and a brief retirement, he visited the Bonner family and made an offer on Texas franchise rights. His offer was accepted and in early 2014, Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken opened in downtown Austin. On a recent visit, construction workers, executives, tourists, families, and young people filled the dining room (an updated, Austin version of the original) to enjoy fried chicken with soul.
Under a shatteringly crisp crust, the chicken is hot, juicy, and moist, with a gentle heat from cayenne and other spices. Each table has a roll of paper towels on offer, but, yes, we were licking our fingers, and a quick glance around the room confirmed we weren’t the only ones. The sides are mostly standard and fairly unremarkable—although we did take note of the long-simmered, bacon-y collard greens with a dash of pepper vinegar. But you come here for the chicken; that’s where the love is. As counterpoint to the hot, spicy bird, sugary coleslaw and sweet tea create an umami balance that’s instantly familiar to sons and daughters of the Deep South. In a nod to Gus’s new adventure in Texas, homemade pies (chess, chocolate chess, pecan, and sweet potato) are served with Blue Bell Ice Cream.
Austin has always welcomed a little soul from parts east, so here’s hoping spicy Southern fried chicken catches on and Gus’s World Famous is here to stay.
Photography by Thomas Winslow