Chow Town

Holy powdered cheese: Nine things I learned on my first trip to In-a-Tub

In-a-Tub regulars are crazy for the Northland fast food joint’s fried tacos, which come with powdered cheese and the customer’s choice of sauce: mild, medium, hot or extra hot.
In-a-Tub regulars are crazy for the Northland fast food joint’s fried tacos, which come with powdered cheese and the customer’s choice of sauce: mild, medium, hot or extra hot. sgish@kcstar.com

Last week, I went to HiBoy Drive-In for the first time and found out their crunchy golden onion rings are worth the drive to Independence.

On Tuesday, I decided to check out another classic but new-to-me Kansas City-area fast food joint: In-a-Tub. The Mexican-American restaurant, which turns 60 this year, is a Northland tradition with locations at 4000 N. Oak Trafficway and 8174 N.W. Prairie View Road. I’ve been curious to try it ever since I heard the fried tacos are topped with powdered cheese. Seriously.

My first impressions:

1. The food isn’t served in a tub. Apparently, In-a-Tub swapped cardboard tubs for plastic baskets years ago. The owners kept the name and the logo, which shows a man in a sombrero passed out in a wooden tub. That’s what too many fried tacos will do to you.

2. In-a-Tub tacos are classified by spice level. Customers choose from mild, medium, hot or extra hot. I selected two beef, bean and cheese tacos with hot sauce, which wasn’t burn-your-tongue spicy. I think I’ll try extra hot next time.

3. The powdered cheese is actually pretty good. It tastes like the cheese mix that comes with Kraft mac and cheese and clings to the warm, crispy tacos better than the shredded stuff. Sure, the Nickelodeon-orange powder looked like nothing in nature, but my taste buds didn’t seem to care.

4. The decor is straight from the 1970s. The location on N. Oak Trafficway has wood paneling on every wall and orange booths as far as the eye can see. I haven’t seen that many orange booths since I went to Vista Drive In in Manhattan, Kan.

5. The soundtrack is retro, too. During lunch on Tuesday, I heard everything from bluesy classic rock (Creedence Clearwater Revival, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Doors) to new wave (INXS) and 1990s alt rock (Counting Crows, Gin Blossoms). I think Creedence fits In-a-Tub’s nostalgic vibe best.

6. The pocket burgers aren’t traditional burgers. They’re actually loose meat sandwiches on super-soft steamed buns. I ordered one with nacho cheese ($2.77), which helped hold everything together. It reminded me of the taco burgers I grew up eating at Taco Villa in Topeka — so simple, but so good.

7. The soda and hot sauce selection is surprising. You don’t see Mello Yello, Fanta Strawberry and Pibb Xtra every day. And kudos to In-a-Tub for offering full bottles of red and green Cholula.

8. The appetizers are all over the place. Fries, onion rings, tater tots, fried mushrooms, jalapeno poppers, apple sticks — In-a-Tub offers them all. I tried the cashier-recommended cauliflower ($3.07). The deep-fried florets were served with a side of nacho cheese … which pretty much eliminated any health benefits of eating cauliflower in the first place. You’d have to play at least 18 holes of disc golf at nearby Waterworks Park to burn off this hearty appetizer.

9. The chocolate milkshake is amazing. I ordered one on a whim and it completely exceeded my expectations. Imagine a Wendy’s Frosty, but even creamier. A small costs $2.17.

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