One of the biggest food trends of the past few years has been Nashville hot chicken, fried poultry with a spicy coating. Now that so many local restaurants offer that Tennessee treat, it’s worth thinking about that state’s other major city. Memphis, with just about the same population as Nashville, offers its own culture and traditions 200 miles to the west. While the cities differ in music, with Memphis being known for the blues and Nashville for country, they both share a fondness for fried chicken, and Gus’s is bringing its food to territory beyond its Memphis base.
Gus’s initial foray into Arizona involves two locations, both of which reuse vintage buildings in urban cores. In downtown Phoenix, Gus’s is located just a few blocks west of the Van Buren / First Avenue (eastbound) and Van Buren / Central (westbound) light rail stations. The location puts it near both the Crescent Ballroom and the Van Buren venues for live music. In downtown Mesa, another Gus’s operated by the same franchisee is just a block east of the Country Club / Main light rail station in that city’s growing cluster of independent restaurants and breweries.
Both establishments follow the same pattern with respect to decorating their brick walls. In each location, posters commemorate Memphis landmarks, depicting both the joy of Beale Street, known for its live music, and the sadness of the Lorraine Motel (now a museum) where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Gus’s operates as a full service restaurant, even though paper plates give the restaurant a casual feel. One advantage the Mesa Gus’s has is outdoor dining on shaded tables lining Main Street. In Phoenix, the front door faces a parking lot.
There has been controversy over the use of hot sauce on hot chicken in lieu of spice built into the batter that coats the bird. Gus’s prefers the no-sauce approach, and the poultry, although slightly spiced, is tamer than a lot of the Nashville-style chicken found around town. The coating is crisp, although not brittle, and the meat underneath stays tender and moist, especially on the bone-in pieces. The tenders, as expected, can seem more dry – not enough so to be unpleasant but sufficient to remind diners that there is value in bone despite any inconvenience.
The chicken comes in any number of configurations suitable for different taste preferences and appetites. Breast, drumstick, thighs, wings, and boneless tenders are the building blocks of the chicken combinations. The “snacks” section of the menu describes anywhere from two to 20 pieces of chicken with no accompaniment other than slices of spongy white bread, explained on a tabletop card as an homage to the restaurant’s original sandwich and its modest roots as a tavern that operated in Mason, a small Tennessee town about 35 miles outside of Memphis.
“Plates,” on the other hand, are pieces of chicken with the same sliced bread, as well as default side dishes of creamy coleslaw and slightly sweet baked beans. There is the option to substitute potato salad, fried okra, greens, or mac-and-cheese for either or both sides for a slight additional charge. The emphasis on fried foods that pervades the entrees is found also in the appetizer section of the menu, which includes shareable portions of fried pickles and fried green tomatoes in addition to a larger serving of okra. All come with ranch dressing for dipping.
While chicken is clearly the primary emphasis here, a second strength is found in the pies. Gus’s serves five fillings within a flaky crust: chess, chocolate chess, coconut, pecan, and sweet potato. The first item is a Southern specialty that has a simple filling of eggs, sugar, butter, and a little flour, resulting in a texture similar to cheesecake, but without cheese as an ingredient. All pies can be served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and that frozen dessert is also used in root beer floats, straight or spiked, the only non-pie choice on the restaurant’s dessert menu.
Speaking of spiked, both locations of Gus’s have liquor licenses with beer, wine, and even an option, at least in theory, to order Dom Perignon at a cost equivalent to the price of over 100 pieces of chicken. Drinks come in a souvenir branded plastic cup that customers are free to take home with them. Memphis and Nashville may be 200 miles apart, but both are over 1500 miles from Phoenix. Fortunately, the two Gus’s restaurants in downtown Phoenix and downtown Mesa are joined by just under 20 miles of track and a common theme of Tennessee fried chicken.
341 W. Van Buren St., Phoenix AZ 85003
Van Buren / 1st Avenue (eastbound) and Van Buren / Central (westbound) stations
212 W. Main St., Mesa AZ 85201
Country Club / Main Station