I am in Memphis for the big Memphis in May barbecue cookoff. Last night, after another great dinner at Gus´s World Famous Fried Chicken, I got back to my hotel room early to do a bit of office work before bedtime. The Oklahoma City Thunder had just won their 3rd game in the best of seven series (one victory left; go Thunder!), I watched a couple of Action Bronson video slips and that was it.
I awoke at 5:00 this morning; it must have been all that ice tea I had yesterday. The competition starts tomorrow and there is a lot to do before then. I really need my sleep, but no, Gus got me out of bed early early this morning.
Gus, and all the other stuff: is the electricity at our site now working, which of the Hot Wings recipes will we end up using, will the team like the new t-shirts and caps, I can´t believe that beef tenderloin weighed in at over six pounds. Etc, etc. This and about a thousand other random thoughts, and of course Gus´s (World Famous Fried) chicken.
Fried chicken is permanantly on my Top 5 list of great dishes. Sure, great barbecue is there, but mmm, that chicken. The biggest problem with fried chicken is that a lot of times it is just not good enough. I can eat the Colonel´s chicken or Popeye´s chicken, but the greatest fried chicken (my grandmother Pokey´s, Carl´s in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, and a few others) is always an enigma. Great fried chicken has always made me think: “How the hell did they do that?” Seriously, it´s only chicken.
Gus´s in Memphis carries the “world famous” title, something that could easily make one wonder how NOT great their chicken is since they have chosen to call it the best in the world. Is Gus´s the absolute best on the planet? I bet there are a whole lot of Memphis folks who think so, and I can certainly attest to it being really really good. But, I think it´s better to let others take that discussion. I would however like to say a few words about Gus´s chicken.
There is a chalkboard on the wall at Gus´s showing the Day´s Special. Yesterday, as all the other days, the special is fried chicken. That´s what they make and if you´re in the mood for fish, a burger or some fancy fine dining dish, you are definitely at the wrong place.
Here is my brief assessment of the chicken at Gus´s: It´s a shade or two darker than most fried chicken. It´s like when you are grilling a steak and you let the steak get an extra 20 (or 40) seconds sear time, and when you turn the steak you think “Now that´s a beautiful sear; too bad I only achieve that one out of five times I grill a steak”. It´s like the people frying Gus´s chicken are focused on squeezing in the most deliciousness, the umami of fried chicken, into each batch they make. Mr. Maillard (look him up) would have been proud.
The chicken is spicy, but not too-much-cayenne spicy or jerk-spicy. The heat is on the acidic side (my guess is hot sauce), and there is just enough heat there that you double-napkin: one napkin for the grease on your chin, the other to keep your heat-driven runny nose in check. This process will be repeated any number of times during your meal.
I am guessing that Gus´s chicken is brined. It is juicier that pretty much any fried chicken around, and the meat has just the right amount of salt. The balance of flavors is stunning.
And then there is the crust. Damn you Gus! What is going on? Please tell me. Pokey´s chicken was dipped in flour. That is the classic Southern way to fry a chicken. I prefer buttermilk brining and then the flour. That gives a thicker, but also softer crust. Gus´s crust is neither of these. Are the using some corn starch, potato flour? I just don´t know. I just know it got me out of bed at 5:20 this morning so I can write a few words about that chicken.
If there is a fried chicken restaurant deserving of the “world´s best” title it must be Gus´s. I want to thank them for a job extremely well done. And by the way, the sides at Gus´s are also great. The ice tea is also wonderful and for those needing a bit of flattery, regardless of age, just order a beer at Gus´s. You will always be asked to show your ID.