By Brianna Chu
John Bicos shares ownership of Gus’s BBQ with his brother, Chris. He had been coming to Gus’s since he was a kid, as his best friend (and indeed, the best man at his wedding!) was the great-grandson of the eponymous Gus, who started the restaurant with his relatives in 1946. Their family had owned Gus’s up until they sold it to the Bicos’, with whom they felt comfortable entrusting their family’s legacy. The Bicos brothers’ father opened The Original Tops in 1952, so they grew up in the restaurant industry; in fact, John remembers his father forcing him and his brother to work weekends at the restaurants in an attempt to dissuade them both from the business. Clearly, that plan didn’t work so well – John’s older brother Chris knew more quickly than John that he wanted to be in the business, and was helping to manage Tops while John was in college figuring out what he wanted to do. And as it so happened, soon after John graduated from college, the brothers bought Gus’s from their family friends in 2007. John’s best friend didn’t want to be in the restaurant business, and his parents were older and wanted to retire, so it made sense for the family to pass the baton to the Bicos’.
While the brothers weren’t exactly new to running restaurants, they weren’t as familiar with the sit-down side of things, as Tops is a fast-food place. There were certainly some growing pains and a learning curve; they shut down to remodel and redid most of the interior, keeping only the original 40-foot long, old-school bar top , which had also been kept from the last remodel in the late ‘80s after the Whittier earthquake damaged much of the restaurant. The name and the original neon sign, too, stayed throughout the rebrand. Otherwise, the interior was all new!
When they first re-opened with the new Gus’s BBQ, it was a bit of a shock to the community, since Gus’s had been in South Pasadena so long and it had changed quite drastically; so there was a little bit of pushback from clientele initially. Today, however, John recognizes some familiar faces who were Gus’s customers before he was even born! They get a lot of regulars, young and old – they like to be involved in the local community since they’ve been in South Pasadena for so long. While visiting the recently opened Claremont location, John heard a voice from the bar call his name. It was an older gentleman, probably in his 80s, who wanted to tell John that he had first started going to Gus’s in South Pasadena when he was a kid. He had seen it change over the years, and then moved out to Claremont – and lo and behold, a Gus’s had opened there, too! Gus’s is even scheduled to open a new location in Porter Ranch this summer!
The menu changed significantly, too, in the sense that they expanded it. Originally, Gus’s was a mix between barbecue and an old-school diner. Keeping, of course, some historic recipes and the classic ribs and chicken, they also expanded the barbecue section to add brisket, pulled pork, and tri-tip. They added and expanded what is now the “Southern Kitchen” section in the menu. Their smoker, quite fittingly, is called a “Southern Pride,” and they use pecan wood to provide a unique smoke flavor to their barbecue, with more subtle, nutty taste and smell.
There were a lot of growing pains in the first couple of years, so John and Chris were in Gus’s pretty much every day, seven days a week, for those first two years. John considers those days working closely with their staff as some of his favorites. There was a lot of menu tweaking and adding; one of the menu items that the brothers worked most on was the fried chicken. For some reason, they weren’t happy with it, and felt like it was always just missing that certain something. So they went through some 27 variations: changing the brine, the brining time, the flour, the spices, until they finally landed on the fried chicken you’ll enjoy there today. One of the unique features of the dish is that they serve a boneless fried half-chicken, which often surprises people! There’s a lot of attention to detail on the menu, too, though – their grits are flown in from a mill in South Carolina; it’s as authentic as it gets. Their popular pulled pork nachos, however, were made by accident. A month after the re-opening, they were sitting with the chef, and quite tired of eating the same food (since they had been working for months on all the menu items, and tried many iterations of the same dishes), so the chef just started putting together some nachos with whatever was on the line. As soon as they tried the nachos, they knew that it had to go on the menu just as it was. So, for instance: the cheese sauce on the nachos? It’s the same cheese sauce they use for their mac and cheese!
We had to start with their cornbread, served in a mini-skillet. I could see and taste whole corn kernels amidst the soft, cornmeal-gritty bread. While it was sweet, it was not overly so, and the edges were crusty from being baked in the skillet. The “accidental” pulled pork nachos could have been a full meal in itself, piled high with tender pulled pork covered in tangy homemade barbecue sauce, guacamole, pico de gallo, jalapenos, mac and cheese sauce, beans, and fresh cilantro. The vegetables were fresh, crunchy, and bright, cutting through some of the heaviness of the cheese, meat, and beans. The pulled pork practically melted in my mouth; I would consider ordering this sharing starter as my non-sharing main course the next time I visit!
The tables are all set with four sauces: Original Memphis, Kansas City, Caroline Gold, and an unmarked squeezable container of bright red sauce. The original Memphis is a ketchup and brown sugar based barbecue sauce, versus the more spicy Kansas City sauce. The Carolina Gold is a spicy, zesty honey mustard based sauce. The bright red sauce is a red pepper vinegar sauce that has all the flavor of the pepper, without that much spice.
The storied fried chicken boasted a perfectly crisp and salty exterior. The meat was still nice and juicy, and the boneless aspect makes it easier to eat fried chicken in a dignified manner with a fork and knife, or, if you’re more hands-on, dig in without worrying about any bones to navigate around! It’s some pretty perfect fried chicken, though its secrets will forever elude me…
The pulled pork was even juicier and had a stronger smoky flavor that I didn’t notice earlier in the nachos. The red pepper vinegar sauce complemented the pulled pork excellently, adding pepper flavor with a kick of vinegar that didn’t overwhelm the smokiness of the pork. The rib meat had a bit of a firm bite with some pops of fat and a thick smoke and sauce crust on the outside. There was a tang as well as a sweetness from the sauce alongside the characteristic strong pecan smokiness. The brisket was succulent, and there were some extra fatty slices, too. It had a peppery crust and I added a little extra Memphis barbecue sauce on top of the sauce it was already smoked in to balance some of that pepperiness (black pepper isn’t my favorite taste, so I added some more barbecue sauce to make it more balanced for my palate – but that’s the beauty of having those extra sauces there!).
All of our sides were uniquely Gus’s in their own ways. The baked beans were a mix of different beans – I saw black and kidney beans in there, for sure – with a little bit of green bell pepper and onion, all in a barbecue sauce-esque base. I thought it was a fun and fitting upgrade to standard baked beans. The mac and cheese was mild, gently cheesy, with a little sprinkling of breadcrumbs to add texture to the smooth, creamy sauce. Cavatappi pasta has a great shape, and it didn’t get soggy under all that sauce. The grits were rich and loaded with cheese. The creamed corn had a lot of natural sweetness from the corn, but I feel like they didn’t just use cream; perhaps there was a touch of evaporated or condensed milk? Whatever the case, this creamed corn certainly wasn’t the norm, and I wholly enjoyed it, along with all the other sides.
There’s no doubt that Gus’s BBQ isn’t any run-of-the-mill barbecue restaurant; every dish is uniquely Gus’s, the likes of which you won’t taste anywhere else. It’s a family-friendly restaurant, so bring along your kids, your grandparents, and your dogs (yes, your dogs – they have a dog-friendly patio, and they’re currently running a photo contest in which you can win up to $100 worth of doggy goodies and a $100 Gus’s gift card if you take a photo of your dog on their patio and tag them on Instagram) along to a truly great meal!
808 Fair Oaks Ave.
South Pasadena, CA 91030