Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
I walked into the new River Market location of Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken with very little in the way of expectations about the place. I've never eaten at any of the Mason, Tennessee-based chicken joints, and while I'd heard odes and exclamations of praise for the restaurant's spicy fried chicken, I've generally found that deep-fried yardbird is never quite as good as it should be. There were plenty of empty tables in the newly opened dining room, something that surprised me given the hype that's surrounded Gus's ever since we confirmed that a location was headed our way. This was a soft opening, with a limited menu, but our server assured us that the full scope of menu items was on its way quickly.
So how did was the chicken so legendary that it's called "World Famous" measure up? Well, it was good. Really, really good. It's rare that a place lives up completely to the hype, but just such a thing happened with Gus's.
We started our meal off with an order of Fried Pickles, which unlike the breaded pickle chips found most places were actual long spears of high-quality pickles dredged in seasoned flour and fried to a crisp. Each bite was the perfect balance of crisp coating and juicy pickle, salty and spicy and sour all at once. We polished off a basket of six in no time, and despite the moisture content of these pickles there wasn't a soggy bite to be had. It was obvious from this starter that the Little Rock staff of Gus's had been well trained on the ways and means of getting fried food right, something that made us look forward even more to the chicken.
When our chicken hit the table, we were hit with a spicy, hot aroma that had our mouths watering. The chicken was lightly breaded, fried to a perfect golden brown — and like the pickles, fried so evenly and consistently that I was pretty amazed. First bite was cayenne pepper, paprika, and the deep, clean taste of peanut oil. Second bite was all chicken, moist and flavorful without being heavy or greasy. I'm not a big fan of the chicken breast, but I ordered one tonight because frying a breast and keeping it moist is the definition of playing fried chicken on hard. Gus's was a complete success, with even the tenderloin section of the breast winding up just as juicy as the top. This fried chicken actually tasted like chicken, and was a pleasure to eat even after the crust had been stripped away. And at around $7 a plate, this is easily the best meal deal in the River Market. The sides are no slouch either, with a creamy, tangy slaw and some savory beans rounding out a plate that was already spectacular.
With Riverfest coming up, I hope that the Gus's staff gets ready to be mobbed, because word of how good this chicken tastes is going to spread like wildfire. I know that I can't wait for the next time I'm sitting at one of those red-checkered tables with a 40 oz. in one hand and a piece of hot, delicious fried chicken in the other. I can't tell you if Little Rock's location is as good as the original, but I can tell you this: it's easily the best fried chicken in town.
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