Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken: The Black-Owned Chicken Joint That Became A National Franchise
OFF MENU IS SPONSORED BY EMPEROR NORTON’S BOOZELAND THE TENDERLOIN’S NEWEST HISTORIC DIVE. HAPPY HOUR NOON – 7PM
Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken is taking over the world. Two locations just opened in Los Angeles and there are plans to open the franchise in China and South America. Sorry, folks…it’s not in the bay area yet. While the fried chicken sandwich is slowly creeping into San Francisco’s peripherals, and we have many a soul food restaurant that serves cornmeal crusted fried chicken, there aren’t many restaurants in Northern California solely dedicated to fried chicken. I only happened upon Gus’s by an online search a week before my trip to L.A. I had no idea of its history, no idea that they only serve chicken and no idea that they only serve hot chicken. I just knew I wanted fried chicken and when I saw the photos, I was like, “Hells yes!”
Hot Sauce Nation says that Gus’s original owner and creator Napoleon Vanderbilt, a black man, tinkered with a chicken and hot sauce recipe to serve in his small Mason, Tennessee restaurant that catered to black patrons in a time where segregation was a way of life in the South. “Na,” as Napoleon was known, kept on tinkering even after he started selling the pieces of chicken between two slices of white bread out of his tavern. Both white and blacks came together in 1973 to help Napoleon and his wife, Maggie, build a bonafide brick and mortar dedicated to their beloved hot fried chicken; Maggie’s Short Order. When the couple passed on in 1982 and 1983, their only son, Gus Bonner, inherited the legacy of his father’s hard work. And although he changed the name to what is now known as Gus’s World Famous Hot and Spicy Chicken, he was no fool and kept his father’s recipe the same. Although Gus’s is now a franchise, with a woman named Wendy McCrory (I’m assuming is the same Wendy [Carter] that was one of the first franchisees, with her then husband, Tipp) as the current president, the franchise agreement leaves the Bonner family still in some control.
The Bonner family makes all the frying batter, which gets delivered to each of the restaurants.
The L.A. space is large. It seemed too large. We had our pickin’ of various tables as hardly anyone was in the place around 7PM. But, within a matter of moments, the space filled up. Tables covered in plastic gingham tablecloths at a respectable distance so that diners can stretch out, or raise their voices over the various televisions and music in order to have conversation without the likelihood of other diners ear-hustling. A large plastic cup (which you can take as a souvenir) of iced Arnold Palmer continued to be filled throughout my meal, I could not get enough of it.
I ordered the 3-piece dark (two thighs + leg + beans and slaw) for $11.60 | I swapped for fries and mac and cheese. This chicken will haunt my memories. It’s not that heat that induces the kind of pain that hurts so good, inflicts sweat or begs surrender. The heat level is perfectly balanced, just enough to peak interest and to keep you wanting more. The seasoning makes it darker, but the chicken is also fried until it reaches a burnt sienna color, as if someone rubbed coconut oil all over it and left it basting in the sun. And because it’s a wet batter, every inch of crispiness clings on to the juicy meat. I prefer a more raggedy crust. But, then you bite into the skin and it crackles upon impact, there are no bits of the chicken left without skin. Which is everyone’s favorite part. The heat is warming, the skin crisp, the meat juicy and the act of bitting into the chicken with your hands and teeth is primal. Thankfully this place doesn’t exist anywhere near me because it would surely be the nail in the coffin.
It has been said that Gus’s delicious wet battered fried chicken once erased the barriers of racism. Just how black folks had to receive their food through the back door, when whites came through to Gus’s, they too had to receive their food at the back door. And as much as my pessimism wants to reject a portion of that folkloric tale, I’m reminded that Gus’s did bring me to the intersection of Pico and Crenshaw that was only a dozen blocks away from an intersection where 2,000 California Army National Guard troops were sent in by Governor Pete Wilson to create some kind of order to the mayhem that became known as the LA Riots some 25-years ago.
Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken
1262 Crenshaw Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA