Happy (belated and/or Chinese) New Year, readers! Apologies for being M.I.A. the past couple months. After law school finals, holidays, and a much-needed vacation, I am back and ready to blog–with lots of exciting new content!
It seems both apropos and ironic that my first post of the year is devoted to fried chicken. Of course, one of my many New Years resolutions is to eat healthier and I really am trying to stick to it. But after watching an episode of “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” about fried chicken, I knew I had to splurge a little. The episode featured two places that I am fortunate to have visited in the past couple months: Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken in Memphis, and Ms. Tootsies Soul Food Cafe in Philly. While the two restaurants couldn’t be more different, they do have one thing in common: serving damn good fried chicken.
Gus’s definitely lives up to its name, serving world famous hot and spicy chicken for over fifty years. The original location that started it all is in Mason, TN, about 40 miles outside of Memphis. Since opening back in 1953, the fried chicken recipe has remained a closely guarded secret, and to this day, the Bonner family still delivers its secret batter to franchisees rather than release the recipe. According to Food Network, the Bonners have been offered up to $1 million for their recipe, but they haven’t budged.
If you’re in Memphis and don’t feel like driving 40 miles to the original Gus’s, head to the downtown location, just a few blocks from the infamous Beale St. While the other businesses seem eerily deserted, Gus’s is the exception on the block, as hungry diners pour into the one-room restaurant. It’s definitely no-frills, with picnic-style gingham tablecloths and plastic plates and silverware. But what Gus’s lacks in ambience, it more than makes up for with its fried chicken (pictured above: 3 piece white plate w/ beans and slaw, $8).
Though perfectly crisp on the outside, what stood out most about Gus’s fried chicken was the meat itself. The spices of the marinade permeated the meat, with just the right amount of heat in each bite. The light exterior also managed to keep the interior incredibly moist, sealing in the juices and flavor. Wash it all down with some of Gus’s equally infamous sweet tea, and you’ve truly got yourself a piece of heaven.
If you can manage to save room, definitely order dessert! Gus’s bakes all of their desserts from scratch, including this decadent pecan pie. Served warm, the filling was gooey in the best way, with the crust balancing out the sweetness.
Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken is seriously the stuff of legends–even sparking a feud between Serious Eats founder Ed Levine and Bon Appetit! I have to agree with Ed Levine on this one, and declare my absolute love, devotion, obsession, addiction–whatever you want to call it–for Gus’s.
Well-known as a casual spot for satisfying soul food, owner Keven Parker has completely revamped Ms. Tootsies, aiming for a swankier lounge feel. Black, red, and white seem to be the dominant color scheme throughout the restaurant, with large black and white photographs of African American celebrities hanging on the walls (be sure to check out the [unisex] bathroom, where there is a particularly sensual photo of Janet Jackson covering the entire wall). While I appreciate Ms. Tootsies’ efforts to go more upscale, but I’m not entirely sure it works with both the surrounding neighborhood or the food.
While the ambience has changed a lot, fortunately, Ms. Tootsies seems to be sticking to its successful soulful cuisine. My friend and I started with Sadiki’s catfish fingers and fries ($8) appetizer. The thin breading on the catfish fingers was well-seasoned and flavorful, even better when dipped in tartar sauce. I also enjoyed the fries, which were crispy and coated with a similar seasoning as the catfish. In addition to the catfish, Ms. Tootsies serves complimentary cornbread muffins with homemade strawberry butter as a starter to the meal. Despite being a bit burnt from the toaster, the warm cornbread muffins were delicate and cake-like, sweetened just a touch with the strawberry butter.
For our main course, of course, we had to order the infamous fried chicken basket, with mac and cheese and collard greens ($26 w/ 2 sides). The chicken arrived fresh from the fryer, glistening and golden brown. Ms. Tootsies batter was much thicker and crunchier than Gus’s, but nonetheless delicious. The interior was juicy and tender, and we found ourselves devouring the entire basket in a mere ten minutes. The mac and cheese and collards were also respectable, and we managed to polish off those as well.
And of course, I could not eat a fried chicken dinner without….sweet tea! Thought Ms. Tootsies sweet tea is far from traditional, and pricey at $5, it was a pleasant and surprising change from the norm. Instead of black tea, Ms. Tootsies uses tropical iced tea, and tops it off with a slice of watermelon. Her upscale version of sweet tea definitely worked, and was refreshing even on a cold winter night.
For dessert, we ordered the sweet potato pie ($4), one of my favorite soul food desserts. The pie had a nice cinnamon flavor, but would have been ten times better heated up, or even served at room temperature. Our slice seemed like it had come directly out of the fridge, and the filling was very cold as a result.
Despite some small flaws, I really enjoyed my meal at Ms. Tootsies. The fried chicken definitely rivals some of those I’ve had in the South, and I can see why Chef Robert Irvine dubbed it one of the best he’s ever eaten.