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We check out three Southern eats brands, in FT Undercover


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 Southern style (from left): Zaxby’s chicken fingers, Cook Out in Nashville, fried chicken from Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken in Atlanta.

As a cold-blooded Minneapolitan, I don’t long for a life in the South. I’ll take blizzards over hurricanes, but when it comes to chicken joints, there is no contest. After five years in the franchise biz, I still don’t get why some southern concepts haven’t migrated northward. My chance to finally try Zaxby’s came during a family vacation in Asheville, North Carolina. The store design was nothing I hadn’t seen before. The wood and stainless steel were all pleasant, and it was immediately apparent that this was a well-run store—good smells, polite service and everything was spotless. The menu boards were bright and enticing, and I’ve never been so excited for a plate of chicken fingers, straight up with no sauce. The fries, toast and slaw were revelations, with no hint of a Sysco truck. Savoring every bite, I drifted away until a stranger walked in the door and approached our table. He wanted to know if we were there to buy his shoes. We were not, but if they were anything like this delicious food, I might’ve been interested.

The upshot: A bright, clean restaurant with great service and excellent fried chicken is more than enough to recommend Zaxby’s, and to be excited for my next trip down South. — TK


On a trip to Nashville, I noticed something rare across the street: a franchised restaurant I had never heard of called Cook Out. Its specialties are burgers, barbecue, hot dogs and shakes. Judging by a plume of smoke coming from the top of the restaurant, I was guessing Cook Out wasn’t BS-ing about the similarity to an actual backyard barbecue. Sizing up the objectively ugly menu board, I was taken aback by the abundance of choices, from hushpuppies and quesadillas to peach cobbler shakes and the Cook Out-style burger with chili, slaw, mustard and onions. There’s even a coffee menu to capture breakfast customers. I ordered the spicy chicken sandwich with slaw and a Cheerwine. The cabbage was dying a slow death and losing its crunch and the sandwich wasn’t much better than a McChicken—not original in any way. The service and ambiance were fine, but this place didn’t capture me; it’s an affordable choice, however, that could surely please a vanload of kids. My recommendations? Cut down on the foam packaging and pump up the spice.

The upshot: If I’m ordering spicy chicken in Nashville, it should be spicier (and nicer looking) than something coming off a dollar menu in the Midwest. Cook Out left me wanting for much more, and a little less smoke. — TK


The 29 locations of Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken are routinely atop “Best Fried Chicken” lists, and the company gets plenty of nods at the national level. I hit the Atlanta location on the way out of town to see what the big deal was. Inside, it’s pretty simple: A big room filled with tables bedecked with checkerboard tablecloths and mismatched chairs, and a bar and lunch counter in the middle. I ordered a two-piece meal so I could try the chicken and the sides, enjoying my view of the simple and efficient kitchen. When my meal arrived, it wasn’t exactly artistically plated: a portioned foam plate had beans in one spot, coleslaw in another and in the third, a slice of white bread with a couple pieces of chicken. The beans were just OK. As a coleslaw aficionado, Gus’s simple offering was great—creamy dressing atop crunchy cabbage and just enough salt to make it flavorful. As for the chicken, throw all your platitudes about nothing being perfect right out the window. Gus’s 60-year-old recipe is perfect. It was crispy, juicy and salty with a just-right kick that calls for coleslaw every few bites. In fact, halfway through my first piece I ordered and inhaled two more.

The upshot: While I’m typically not a big bone-gnawer, I nibbled, gnashed and ate every succulent morsel of Gus’s meat I could find. I even thought about smuggling a few more pieces home. — NU

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