Recently, when it comes to fried chicken, no other state since Kentucky has captured our collective imagination like Tennessee. Orange County is still crazy for Nashville hot chicken, as the likes of Popeyes and other purveyors try to replicate the success of Howlin’ Ray’s in L.A.
And now, Memphis-style fried chicken has arrived in Santa Ana. To be exact, it’s a franchise called Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, which has slowly expanded its Southern California footprint since it opened in L.A.’s Crenshaw district in 2016.
But if you’ve been to any of the four Southern California branches that have opened in the last four years (which include Burbank and Long Beach), you’ll notice a pattern. Each is organically adapted into the buildings in which they’ve taken residence. As a result, Gus’s is a franchise that doesn’t look like a franchise.
The new Santa Ana dining room — built inside an old structure at the corner of Sycamore and First Street — features exposed brick walls, neon beer signs and checkerboard-covered tables that make you feel like you’re about to tuck into a rack of ribs as a blues band starts to jam.
If I didn’t know I was in downtown Santa Ana, you could convince me I was back in Memphis, where I had my first piece of its chicken in 2014. It was in a building just like this. But since Gus’s was unknown in the West Coast at the time, that “World Famous” tagline seemed kind of presumptuous back then.
Born from a secret recipe developed by Napoleon “Na” Vanderbilt and his wife, Maggie, and popularized by Na’s son Gus at his eponymous restaurant in 1984, this chicken is a different species than the Colonel’s original recipe.
It’s not dredged in flour; it’s dunked in a batter that’s rumored to be cornstarch-based. And that makes all the difference. The thinner batter allows the heat of the peanut oil to penetrate and render out all the chicken’s subcutaneous fat, transforming the skin to attain the texture of a Lay’s potato chip.
The batter is also the chicken’s spice-delivery system. Each piece glows with an aposematic red burnish that warns you of its inherent hotness. When you take a bite, the cayenne first makes landfall as a tingle on the tip of your tongue before it slowly radiates its warmth throughout your entire mouth. But it isn’t an overwhelming burn. You won’t be reaching for the water.
In fact, if you end up drowning your chicken with glugs from the Louisiana Hot Sauce bottle like I did, you’ll forget how spicy it was in the beginning. Instead what you’ll remember most from the experience is how stunning a properly made piece of fried chicken can be. After I breached that crispy battered skin, I realized how juicy it was. Even the white meat piece wept like it was a drumstick. Before I knew it, I was pecking underneath the rib cage for scraps of the caked-on batter.
What’s most important is that you eat the chicken as soon as it’s served. Jonathan Gold alluded to this when he reviewed the first Gus’s in L.A. four years ago. He said that Gus’s chicken doesn’t travel well and must be consumed in store. He’s right, but I’d also add that having it as a proper meal at the restaurant feels like a throwback to a time when chicken dinners were a communal thing you did surrounded by friends and family.
So don’t DoorDash this. You can get a KFC bucket to eat in front of the TV anytime. Besides, you want to witness for yourself how Gus’s continues the charming Southern tradition of serving every protein atop a slice of white bread you have no intention of eating.
And the sides! The mac-n-cheese is so thick and rich, a fork sticks upright in it. The collard greens — with its astringent bitterness acting as a natural poultry palate cleanser — are a must. Even the sugary baked beans and crispy-chilled coleslaw that come at no extra charge with your chicken plate are the best versions of themselves.
Despite being open for barely a month, the Santa Ana branch is already operating as though it’s been doing it for decades. The service drips Southern hospitality. Every drink comes in its own take-home souvenir cup. And the food is served with such immediacy that the fried okra arrives with a caution that it’s “super hot!” (Heed this warning. I didn’t and it scalded the roof of my mouth, but the okra was also the best I’ve had in OC, each mucilaginous morsel cocooned in a batter whose crunch lasts hours.)
You should, of course, wash everything down with sweet tea and finish with a slice of chess pie. The latter is made of custard that comes in plain and chocolate flavors. Best of all is a coconut version that’s exactly like the one I had in Memphis — a house-made delight that’s hopefully going to be offered at all the franchises to come. At this rate, Gus’s might live up to that “World Famous” tagline after all.
Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken
Location: 102 N Sycamore St., Santa Ana
Details: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, (949) 336-3936; gusfriedchicken.com