It takes a certain kind of chutzpah to slap the words "World Famous" on a restaurant, but Tennessee-based chicken chain Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken wears the label proudly, with a sign out front that announces that "Today's Special" is simply "chicken." We can't think of many restaurant openings that have whipped up the furor that Gus's managed, and it's true that the River Market restaurant serves up a bird that's worlds apart from the Colonel and his ilk. After a rocky start right before this year's Riverfest that saw the place run out of food, Gus's has settled into a groove that doesn't always provide the most efficient service, but manages to get the chicken right every time.
But before we even get to the chicken, let's talk pickles — which, like most of the delicious things on the menu, are fried. Fried pickles were invented in these parts, and while the battered and deep-fried dill spears served up at Gus's might not take the place of the more traditional pickle chips, we've found ourselves pleasantly surprised every time by the ability of these pickles to maintain a crispy exterior while holding on to a juicy, tangy interior. This contrast of crunchy outside and juicy inside is something that Gus's has perfected even in the appetizers, and make these pickles a must for any lover of fried sour cukes.
If you're lucky — and this has happened on a few occasions — the last bite of pickle will be barely a memory when the chicken hits the table. Gus's lets each diner customize their plate, with the traditional two-piece white (breast and wing) and two-piece dark (leg and thigh) joined by a three-wing meal and other multi-piece options as well as an a la carte menu that allows for extra chicken to be added in pretty much any combination possible. For our money, that three-wing plate is where it's at, because the wings at Gus's are large, meaty, and constitute the Platonic ideal of what a crust-to-meat ratio in a piece of fried chicken should be. The wings are served country-style, with the tips still on them, and we can't promote the satisfying crunch of dthose crisp-fried wingtips enough.
Fans of the chicken breast will find a lot to love about Gus's, a place that is one of the only chicken joints in our considerable experience that manages to get the often dry cut to somehow reach an almost alchemical level of perfection — it stays juicy while being fully cooked, and is possessed of flavor right down to the bone. The first chicken breast we tore into was a revelation: juicy and tender, with a full flavor of spice even in tenderloin. We've been used to fried chicken breasts that taste good only on the surface for so long that we almost thought we'd been served a large thigh the first time we ate one of these succulent cuts.
Each plate at Gus's comes with a choice of two sides, with beans and coleslaw being the default choices — and as far as default choices go, these are mighty fine. The beans are spicy and rich, with a tangy sauce that's not quite barbecue and not quite Boston-baked. The slaw is fresh-tasting and crunchy, and while it can be a little heavy on the dressing, we like the tangy flavor. Even better than the slaw, though, are the greens, which apart from those served at Sims rank among our favorite restaurant greens in town, with a savory and bitter flavor that only well-cooked greens can bring.
If there is any downfall to the Gus's experience, it's the often spotty service. The dining room is a small one, and while waits for a table are understandably long, it's the waiting that happens after seating that can sometimes approach the ridiculous. For a place like this, fast turnover of tables should be a high priority, yet recent visits to Gus's have left us without basics drinks, cutlery, and napkins apart from actual items of food. Confusion on the part of the wait staff has also resulted in incorrect sides, drinks being refilled with the incorrect liquid, and even in one case an entirely wrong plate of food served with barely an apology. While it might be tempting to excuse these lapses due to the hectic nature of a busy restaurant, we're of the mind that if a place wants to play on the big stage that is the River Market, they've got to bring their A-game. In addition to service problems, the restaurant has never managed to have a full slate of sides or dessert on any visit, even all these weeks after their full opening.
Minor complaints about inconsistent service aside, we can't help but be thankful that Gus's is in our fair city. That spicy, juicy chicken has been the constant thought of many a slow afternoon as we've counted the hours until the boss lets us clock out and head downtown for some grub. As for the "World Famous" on the sign outside? After our first bite, we see why.