These past few months have been especially hard on most people's capacity for national pride, and it's been easy to fall into a pit of despair over the state of our culture. So amid this glut of negativity, let us take solace in the small victories. Let us be thankful for spicy fried chicken.
I'm not sure why the hot chicken revolution took so long, but rather than dwell on that, let us instead celebrate our new national shared understanding: that spicy fried chicken is one of the greatest culinary gifts of all time. It's strange that outside of Tennessee and a few fast food chains we didn't succumb sooner to the joys of spicy chicken, especially given our national obsession with Buffalo wings. But let us not look to the past, when we had to administer our own hot sauce to any piece of fried chicken larger than a wing. Let us instead look to the glorious future, in which we will be blessed with multiple choices for vendors of that perfect equation: bird + fry + spice.
In Los Angeles, there are two exciting new vendors that fulfill this promise, and both have Tennessee in their DNA. One of them, Howlin' Ray's Nashville Hot Chicken, is only available if you're willing to stand in line at Chinatown's Far East Plaza for hours. I know standing in line for food is viewed as a thrilling sport these days, but its allure is as baffling to me as ferret legging (look it up). Howlin' Ray's serves chicken based upon the famous Prince's Hot Chicken in Nashville, and part of the appeal of both places is the extreme spiciness available and the competitive nature of which level of spiciness you can withstand.
It's great that we have a version of this type of hot chicken in L.A., and I'm happy for Howlin' Ray's that it has garnered so much excitement that people are willing to queue for half an afternoon to get a taste. But there's another place in town that serves great spicy fried chicken without the hassle. In fact, you can sit comfortably at a checkered tablecloth–adorned table and sip sweet tea while you wait, which will be 10 to 20 minutes and not hours. That place is Gus's World Famous Hot & Spicy Fried Chicken.
Gus's originated in Mason, Tennessee, a family business that dates back to the 1960s. It underwent a few name, location and generational ownership changes before becoming Gus's in 1984. In 2001, a fan of Gus's negotiated a deal to open a location in Memphis, and it became a staple of that city's food scene before branching out to other cities. It's now a bona fide national chain, with 17 restaurants across the South and Midwest.
The L.A. location, which opened in June at the corner of Crenshaw and West Pico in Mid-City, is the first Gus's west of Texas. Each location is based on the Memphis store, which is to say they all feel homey and un-chainlike. The L.A. version is a fairly decent approximation of the Memphis Gus's — the brick walls are festooned with memorabilia and neon and Budweiser mirrors (despite the fact that there is currently no beer or booze of any kind for sale), there are colorful checkered tablecloths and a few too many large-screen TVs playing sports.
Unlike Prince's or Howlin' Ray's or any of the true Nashville-style hot-chicken joints, Gus's does not have different categories of spiciness. There's only one level: "hot & spicy." Plates come with two or three pieces of chicken, white or dark meat, atop a slice of white bread and with baked beans and coleslaw as sides. The coating on the chicken is thin and shattery. It seems as if they have somehow taken the skin of the chicken and imbued it with a slow-burning heat and lots of salt and crisped it to the point where the fat has liquified and re-fused and created a perfect amalgamation of crackling schmaltz and cayenne. Yes, the interior is juicy, even on the white meat, and if you order the three-piece dark meat plate, you may find yourself dazed and covered in red and brown grease and wondering where all that chicken went when you had planned to take at least one piece home with you. And maybe you want another piece. Maybe you could just sit here and eat this chicken indefinitely.
There are treats here beyond the chicken, especially for Southerners craving a taste of home. This might be the most authentic and decent iced tea in town (half sweet, half unsweet is the way to go), and the fried okra, collard greens and coleslaw all do their job very well, though they fail to reach the heights of the chicken. If you're a lover of creamy-style mac and cheese, Gus's delivers a tangy, delicious version. All of the sides are good without being stunningly great, which is fine because they aren't the star of the show anyway.
It's hard to resist ordering a slice of pie at the end of your chicken bacchanal, especially because finding great chess pie in L.A. is a struggle. But I thought Gus's version was a little too eggy, the crust too stiff even when offered slightly warmed. The best chess pie manages to remake sugar into a molten, stretchy, almost liquid substance, and I'm afraid I may have been ruined by my North Carolina mother-in-law's version, which tastes more like everything amazing about caramelized sugar and less like too-sweet custard. Are my standards unfair? Probably. Once you've tasted greatness there's no going back.
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Is the chicken a little less spicy than what you might get at a Gus's in Tennessee or Mississippi? I think it is. It's possible my tastebuds and memory are playing tricks on me, and either way I'm not complaining. The chicken at Gus's is delicious, in Memphis and in L.A., and probably in Detroit as well. If extreme heat is what you're after, there's a two-hour line at Howlin' Ray's with your name on it.
The dining room at Gus's is one of the most diverse, customerwise, that I've seen in L.A., which is a trait I've noticed at other fried-chicken restaurants in the South and beyond. The company proudly claims that from its earliest days in Mason, this chicken brought black and white people to eat together, at a time when that wasn't common.
It's probably ridiculous for me to hope, on this of all weeks, that fried poultry might be something that works to unite us. But looking out over the dining room at Gus's, with that low-level chili sting warming your soul, you might at least take comfort in this one small miracle: Spicy chicken's time has come.
GUS'S WORLD FAMOUS HOT & SPICY FRIED CHICKEN | 2 stars | 1262 Crenshaw Blvd., Arlington Heights | (323) 402-0232 | gusfriedchicken.com | Sun.-Thu., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. | Plates, $8.90-$15.90 (individual pieces and large platters available) | No alcohol | Street parking (lot parking for carry-out customers only)