Review: Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken

Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken
117 San Jacinto Blvd. (map), 512-474-4877,
Hours: 11am-9pm Sun-Thu; 11am-10pm Fri-Sat
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 08.22.14
They’ve done some heroic work — we’ll call it fauxk art  — to make Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken look like it’s been here awhile, and not just since the Mongolian Grille closed down last year. Maybe even as long as, say, Jake’s on West Sixth, that long-gone fried oyster house where the stink fell like graveyard dust. The scuffed concrete floors, checkered tablecloths, distressed wood and Bell-jar chandeliers feel like Jake’s, transported to the Age of Proper Ventilation. The air is clear and cool, and the only sweaty heat rises from the chicken in front of you.
The Tennessee transplant is one of a shrinking breed of downtown restaurants where a plate lunch costs less than $10. A breast and a wing with beans, slaw and bread for $7.75, table service included. Good service. Because while the atmosphere might have been manufactured, the genuine Austin hospitality (Auspitality™) is not.
But let’s talk about that chicken. The uniform tawny crust yielded to the touch but brought some respectable crunch. The surface was smooth, almost as if a piece of rough skillet-fried chicken had been double dipped and refried to round off the corners. The effect was a uniform armor not unlike tempura, and just as light to the touch. The deliberate crunch yielded to a spicy finish, a clean burn that paid proper respect to this high-octane Southern style. It’s a style the kids might not like (it tastes like burning!), but their handlers will appreciate it for the juicy wave of satisfaction that only real, bone-in fried chicken can deliver.
The leg was a fountain of dark-meat chicken manna. A generously cut thigh was just a step below on the moisture-meter, firm at the top and going tender at the darker core. The breast stayed on the dry side, peeling in fibers like a Thanksgiving turkey. Beyond texture, the turkey simile held up for the sheer size of the breast, one of the bigger pieces of restaurant chicken I’ve seen, especially in this age of diminutive artisan farm birds. I won’t get into the Hollywood politics of feathered breast enhancement, but it was hard not to stare. The downside was that the crust did all the flavor work. In a follow-up visit, the thigh and breast switched places, with the white meat doing the juicy slip-and-slide while the dark meat lay in that languorous place where fried food goes after peak lunch hours.
(ABOVE, clockwise from top left: Fried green tomatoes and fried pickles at Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken; the sign on the building that formerly housed the Mongolian Grille; pecan and chess pies; Gus’s fauxk art dining room. AT TOP: Breast, leg, thigh and wing pieces flanked by mac and cheese, collard greens, baked beans and coleslaw.)
Images of KFC danced in my head as I ate the confetti-shredded coleslaw, a sweet mayo morass of cabbage and carrot the scorched-tongue kids will like. Baked beans were even sweeter but somehow more endearing in the way that sugar and tomato can forgive sins. But if you’ve already signed up for the fried chicken ride, the beans are a bonus indulgence. For a more introspective side dish experience, there were collard greens with a sharp swampy twang, all cooked to hell in that stems-and-leaves Southern way that’s either a disaster or a blessing, depending on what you grew up with. I found them mushy, like something you’d frappé in a Magic Bullet and miss the target. (Sides run $1.75-$2.25.)
But for comfort food, this was the right kind of mac and cheese for the job: elbow mac cooked right up to its liquefied edge, clumped with congealed orange cheese with shreds of cheese and a sprinkle of paprika for the finish. It’s not a picnic without potato salad, and it’s not Gus’s without sugar to spoil the party. It overpowered even the mustard, leaving an otherwise solid mix of chunky, skin-on red potatoes, pickles and eggs to founder in Gus’s aw-shucks amusement park.
As sweet as Gus’s Southern comfort can be, chess and pecan pies ($3 each) dropped the real sugar bombs. It worked for the pecan, with its woodsy crown of nuts to offset the high fructose gel beneath. But the chess pie’s egg-custard core was overwhelmed by its lollipop afterglow. If a soft-focus Polaroid of Grandma’s kitchen is your mission at Gus’s, I’d leave the pie out of the frame.
Where the chicken played it smooth, fried green tomatoes ($6.75) and fried pickle spears ($5.75) played it rough, with a shaggy breading as spiky as Cap’N Crunch. Don’t risk your LDL/HDL ratios on these; save that for the chicken. The tomatoes came out mushy beneath that sturdy crust, but the pickles stayed unchanged, destined as ever to share the earth with single-celled algae when the end times come. Lone Star will be there, too, because who cares what Lone Star tastes like, so long as it’s cold as nuclear winter.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)