Memphis export Gus’s has perfect fried chicken

Some of the best fried chicken in Atlanta right now is actually from Memphis.

If you’re like me, that may hurt your civic pride. Atlanta is a good town for fried chicken. We’ve got buckets of it, stretching from Busy Bee in the West End to Watershed in Buckhead. What do we need with some Memphis chain coming in showing us how to make fried chicken?

Well, eat at Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken in the basement of Peachtree Center and find out. I’m serious. This isn’t just a good suggestion. The fried chicken here is a necessity. A notch in your culinary life will go unfilled if you do not taste it.

OK, let me slow down for a minute. You’ve had fried chicken before. You know what you like about it: the crunchy exterior, the salty flavor, the juicy meat, the greasy fun of tearing it right off the bone. Any decent fried chicken can do all of those things. Even some gas stations get it right.

Gus’s has perfected the basics and then dialed the flavor up to 10. I don’t mean this stuff is spicy like transcendently hot stuff served in Nashville, nor does it bring in some unfamiliar element from a chef’s Proustian flavor memory. No, this chicken is spicy (but not too spicy) with cayenne, it has the smoky depth of paprika, it has the brace and pop of salt and pepper, and if you close your eyes and really pay attention, you might catch a tang of buttermilk. Maybe.

In other words, Gus’s is both deeply elementary and wonderfully perfect fried chicken.

I sat moaning and groaning over this chicken at Gus’s bar while drinking Miller Lite, which the restaurant sells in 12- and 40-ounce bottles. I’d just inhaled the crunchy, fatty chicken thigh and then bit into a breast that was so juicy it burst onto my plate. I looked over to my bartender and moaned, “Why is it so good?”

She just laughed and pointed me in the direction of a sharply dressed woman in a camel-colored suit. I later learned that this was Cecelia Payne Wright. She, along with a group of investors, owns the Georgia franchise of Gus’s Fried Chicken. Wright also serves as general manager of the Atlanta location. There’s a long back story to Gus’s recipe that stretches several decades; you can read all about it on Gus’s website if you like, but it doesn’t include the latest chapter.

After being a Memphis institution for many years, Gus’s is now aggressively franchising, with eyes on becoming a national chain. I incorrectly assumed Wright and other franchisees must be let in on the secret recipe that makes Gus’s so great, which is no doubt the batter.

“We receive the batter. We don’t know where it is made and we don’t know what is in it. We are obligated to keep it under lock and key,” Wright told me. In fact, she told me that twice, almost word for word, both when I dined in the restaurant and when I called back as a reporter.

The batter also doubles as the marinade, if you’re curious, and the chicken is fried in peanut oil. Maybe the lock and key part is true, but I didn’t demand to be taken into the kitchen to see the batter safe.

The national website for Gus’s is keeping track of the franchising progress with a little counter that currently reads: “11 — Number of Locations, 5 — States with a Gus’s Fried Chicken Store, 1 — Amazing Recipe.”

This is, perhaps, inadvertently honest. The only amazing recipe at Gus’s is the fried chicken. Everything else is just OK.

Don’t bother with the fried appetizers, which are redundant and take up precious stomach space you could fill with chicken. Order some sides, if only to pace your meal and give you more time to enjoy the chicken.

The standard plates, plastic foam by the way, come with two sides, and the restaurant suggests baked beans and coleslaw. The beans are sugary in that Memphis way and the coleslaw is creamy. They both offer a fine contrast to the meat.

I was happier with the pork-laden greens and mac-and-cheese. You can finish off your meal with a slice of sugary chess pie, but, again, that’s just more room in your belly that could’ve been filled with Gus’s Fried Chicken.

The most difficult part about Gus’s is the location, which is incredibly convenient if you ride MARTA or work within walking distance of Peachtree Center, but an absolute pain for anyone else.

Don’t fret, though. Wright promised me that this was only the first location of Gus’s in Georgia and that it won’t be the last.

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