“Award-winning” and “famous” are words frequently thrown around by restaurateurs and cooks in the business of selling food, but Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken that opened a location in Deep Ellum on Sept. 28 can legitimately make those claims.
Initially made famous when GQ declared it “may very well be the best fried chicken in the world,” and named last year’s winner in New Orleans’ National Fried Chicken Festival, Gus’s laurels have decidedly been earned.
Gus’s World Famous Hot & Spicy Fried Chicken — the restaurant’s full name — began with Napoleon “Na” and Maggie Bonner selling their subtly spiced chicken from the back door of a tavern in Mason, Tenn., in 1953.
The company’s website says the restaurant began “in an era of divisive racial attitudes,” but Mason residents “found that they could all — black and white — agree on how much they loved Na’s fried chicken.” His creation is said to have united the community when “chicken-loving locals” supplied the Bonners with materials for their own freestanding restaurant, which the couple built on their land 40 miles outside of Memphis.
The original location that remains in operation today was called Maggie’s Short Orders until 1984, when the Bonner’s son, Vernon “Gus” Bonner, reopened as Gus’s World Famous after his parents’ deaths.
Wendy McCrory is the owner and franchisor of the company today. She started with the company as an employee, and she later collaborated with the Bonner family to open Gus’s second location in downtown Memphis in 2001. As of now, the chain has grown to a total of 30 restaurants with locations in California, Georgia, and Michigan. McCrory purchased the brand in its entirety in 2014, seven years after Vernon Bonner’s death. She tells us Gus’s next projected market is Phoenix.
Of the expansion, McCrory says, “We are slowly expanding but racing no one.” According to the website, franchise applications are no longer being accepted due to overwhelming interest.
The newest restaurant in Deep Ellum is the fourth location in Texas. It’s managed by Chris Petruska, the same partner who opened the Fort Worth location in 2016. The company says Deep Ellum fit the bill for a cool neighborhood with businesses they hope to complement.
In actuality, Deep Ellum is currently rife with good fried chicken: Slow Bone, Pecan Lodge, Brick and Bones, to name a few. Add to that the three Nashville hot chicken spots that have opened since this summer in Old East Dallas, the neighborhood directly north. Along with these will be Hattie’s B’s Hot Chicken — also from Tennessee — that announced they will be joining the competition in Deep Ellum by the summer of 2021.
The chicken served at Gus’s isn’t like Nashville hot fried chicken, though — nor any other chicken sold in the area. Instead of the instant, blistering heat of Nashville style, Gus’s blend of spices gradually grow on the eater’s palate. Spice is held in the bronze fried skin as well the juicy, plump meat of hormone-free chickens that are never frozen. Chickens that are eventually fried in peanut oil are hand-cut in the restaurant and prepared behind a locked door.
There are appetizers like fried green tomatoes and fried pickle spears. The main course is nothing but fried chicken, sold in tenders, wings, and on the bone with a choice of white or dark meat.
Both Saveur and singer Norah Jones have attempted to replicate the Bonner family secret recipe. Before the chicken became “world famous,” Gus Bonner was known for saying: “This is a dead man’s recipe [and] I ain’t telling.”
To offset the heat that comes on by the time the second piece is finished, Gus’s standard sides — coleslaw and baked beans — are “sweetly Southern inspired,” as McCrory describes it. Additional sides, which can be substituted, include simple yet savory collard greens and highly-acclaimed (and also secret) macaroni and cheese that is gooey and soft and like the best version of cafeteria mac from childhood.
All chickens are fried to order, so those wanting to do a quick pick-up might consider ordering ahead by calling the restaurant. Gus’s is also open for dine-in at 75% capacity, per Texas guidelines.
Decor is down-home with laminated gingham tablecloths, exposed brick walls, mismatched chairs and old-time ceiling fans. An isolated chandelier hangs from a plywood ceiling in the smaller back room.
Drinks include sweet and unsweet tea, and they’re served in souvenir cups which say: “If you haven’t eaten at Gus’s, you haven’t eaten fried chicken.” Additionally, customers dining in can enjoy domestic and craft canned beers that come in sizes as big as a 32-ounce Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Desserts include homemade pies in flavors like chocolate chess and sweet potato.
When asked about carrying on the legacy of Gus’s chicken that first united racially-divided people 67 years ago, McCrory says, “I am incredibly confident stating that this chicken brought people together, helping to mold and unite people. We live and breathe this every day, working hard to continue bringing people together, one piece of chicken at a time.”
Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken is located at 2904 Commerce Street. gusfriedchicken.com/dallas-texas-location/.