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Cheap Eats: Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken

Hot and spicy chicken hits Atlanta, with more to come


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? Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken is coming to a town near you. Actually, it's already here in Atlanta, taking roost on the lower level of Peachtree Center downtown as of last Thursday, August 20. If you're not familiar with this import that made its name in Memphis, Gus's is all about the hot and spicy fried chicken, frequently cited as being among the very best in the country. Come lunchtime, folks are already lining up downtown to get a taste and see if it warrants the hype.
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? THE HISTORY: Gus's fried chicken legend goes back to 1953 in tiny Mason, Tennessee, a bit outside Memphis, where one Napoleon Bonner created the recipe that lives on today. The name on the sign outside didn't actually say Gus's until 1984, though, when Napoleon's son Vernon (nickname, "Gus Bully") took over. They opened their first franchise in downtown Memphis in 2001, where Gus's fried chicken really started to gain a cult following. And now Gus's is looking to spread the fried chicken love from coast to coast - with franchise locations planned from LA to Chicago to Philadelphia, and spots - like Atlanta - in between. 
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? PARK IT AND SIT DOWN: When you hear Peachtree Center, you may be thinking food court, but Gus's is a sit down establishment (that happens to have a to-go counter as well). This is not fast food - they cook to order, and you should plan on a 15 or so minute wait for your chicken. The daytime crowd is a melting pot of the downtown milieu - cops and construction workers, men in suits, nurses on break - with a few foodies with cameras mixed in (hey, I'm one of them). If you're not a downtown worker, you may have trouble locating Gus's the first time, but it's actually not that hard - they have an exterior door on Peachtree Center Avenue (facing Truva Turkish Kitchen and CUTS Steakhouse across the street). There are outdoor lots and garages just about everywhere you look, but Gus's does not have any plans (yet) to validate parking, so expect to spend $5-10 before you even walk in the door for Gus's chicken. Inside, Gus's has put just enough thought into the decor to make the Peachtree Center space a bit more attractive - some rusty corrugated metal siding on the counter, the requisite reclaimed wood lining the walls - but clearly not so much that you worry they're getting ahead of themselves. To keep you occupied while you await your chicken, there are TVs hanging all around the restaurant.  
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? IT'S ALL ABOUT THE CHICKEN: First and foremost, you're here for the chicken. Sure, everyone loves fried pickles with ranch dressing, or a plate full of fried okra - but really, save room for the bird. You can get individual pieces ($2.75 for a thigh, leg, or wing; $3.75 for a breast), or go for a plate that includes cole slaw and baked beans ($7.30 for a thigh and leg; $8.70 for a breast and wing), or even get plates of 8, 12, 16, or 20 pieces for a group. The cold, crisp slaw pairs nicely with the hot, spicy chicken, but, if you ask me, the beans are a bit of stomach filler that you don't really need. For an up-charge of $0.50, you can trade in those beans for potato salad, fried okra, greens, fries, or mac and cheese. There are desserts, too - chess pie, coconut pie, pecan pie, sweet potato pie - but did I mention that you're here for the chicken? 
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? Gus's closely-guarded fried chicken recipe appears to travel well, as the Atlanta product already measures up to the lauded chicken found in Memphis. That said, Gus's doesn't mind admitting on their website that their chicken "is a little different each time you try it... once in a while it’ll be so spicy the tears come. Usually, the heat is more gentle, like the touch of an old friend." Sure enough, the heat levels can vary from piece to piece. What doesn't change is that crisp and rusty-bronze exterior, craggy and pleasantly imbued with flavor from the peanut oil that Gus's uses to fry everything. And the meat inside is consistently juicy, a paragon of fried chicken deliciousness. Gus's uses a wet batter that produces a crunchy shell, not too thick, not too thin, and the cayenne-heavy heat tends to build up over time in your mouth, never jumping out to whack you over the head, but slowly creeping up until the tingle of spice really becomes unmistakable after a few minutes. No, we're nowhere close to Nashville-style, blow-your-pants-off spice levels. Think Popeye's, but better. 
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? WHAT'S NEXT: This downtown Atlanta location was opened by a franchise group that has the rights to the whole state of Georgia. One of the partners, John Richards, told us that they hope to open another spot as soon as 6-8 months from now, with more to come after that based on finding good locations. The spicy mystique of the little fried chicken spot out of Memphis may diminish slightly with each new location that pops up from coast to coast, but having the opportunity to hit Gus's here in our own backyard makes it all worth it.
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