The bright yellow door only appeared in the entrance of the former Sketchers store a few months ago, but you’d swear Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken was already a Long Beach institution.
Plastic gingham tablecloths and branded roadhouse-style signs started greeting customers at the Tennessee-bred chain two weeks ago, filling a much-needed gap in the city’s fried chicken scene, which currently consists of mostly fast food (like Popeye’s), a little Southern sit-down (Roscoes!) and one place that unabashedly buys fast food and re-sells it at a profit as part of its own dishes (#Popeyesgate).
Long Beach marks the 24th outpost of the rapidly expanding “hot and spicy” fried chicken brand, which landed in L.A. with its much-hyped first West Coast franchise in 2016 (back then, there were only 14 Gus’s). The restaurant serves fried birds coated in a proprietary cayenne-steeped batter, one that knows no predecessors and differs pretty widely from the face-burning Nashville hot varieties you’ll find at Instagram-famous places like Howlin Ray’s and Hot Chicks.
Instead of battling your friends with how much heat you can handle, at Gus’s you’ll find a more subtle approach to spice. Baked into a craggy eggshell crust that wraps around juicy meat like a crunchy onion skin, the manageable burn approaches slowly after a few bites, more like what you’d experience from a mango habanero salsa rather than an unrelenting ghost pepper hot sauce.
As soon as the heat subsides — whether thanks to time or a gulp of sweet tea — it’s impossible not to crave more.
Food writers from GQ to Serious Eats have long lauded the must-eat merits of Gus’s unparalleled chicken, which traces its roots to Napoleon “Na” Vanderbilt and his wife Maggie in Mason, Tenn. As the origin story goes, the couple sold their fried chicken thighs pressed between two pieces of white bread out of a local tavern starting in the 1950s before opening their own spot in a shotgun shack on the side of the highway in their hometown.
It went through several ownership and location changes throughout the decades before the recipe landed with Na’s son Vernon “Gus” Bonner, who opened Gus’s World Famous Hot and Spicy Fried Chicken in Mason in 1984. Na’s signature chicken drew faithful diners to the small town 45 miles outside of Memphis until an employee named Wendy McCrory negotiated a franchise deal and brought Gus’s, first to Memphis, then to the rest of the country.
In the last few years, McCrory has aggressively expanded the brand, installing locations throughout the South and Midwest that are notable for their dedication to the look, feel and flavor from the Vanderbilt’s shack where it all began. (Long Beach is the third to open in L.A. County in as many years.)
True to its roots, there are no gimmicks at Gus’s. There isn’t even much of a menu. A few fried vegetables count as appetizers; the kitchen makes six sides and several pies for dessert. The rest is all about the peanut-oil-fried chicken, available a la carte, in “Southern portion” buckets or on a plate atop a simple slice of white bread with sides of porky beans and goopy coleslaw.
With fried chicken this good, you’ll never eat Popeye’s again.
2580 Long Beach Blvd, Long Beach; (562) 276-1819; gusfriedchicken.com.
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.