Chow Town

In-a-Tub’s powdered cheese helps define what ‘comfort food’ means

In-a-Tub tacos with its neon orange powdered cheese
In-a-Tub tacos with its neon orange powdered cheese Special to The Kansas City Star

What exactly is comfort food? Is it the amount of butter in the potatoes? Where you eat it? Does having a pot roast take you back to Sunday family dinners with everyone around the table? Weekends at Nana’s?

I’ve been thinking about this since Valentine’s Day. And here’s what I’ve decided: Comfort food really isn’t about the food as much as it is about the memories attached to the food and the physical/emotional responses that you get while eating.

Let me tell you a story. Just after high school, I drove an ice cream truck. My territory was the Northeast section of town. And after I was done with my route, I would often eat at the In-a-Tub on North Oak Trafficway.

Nothing fancy. Lots of fried things. If you could fry it, In-a-Tub would serve it. The most popular dish at In-a-Tub (then and now) is deep fried tacos, topped with lettuce, onions, sauce and neon orange powdered cheese. My usual order was “4 extra hot and a burrito with everything.”

Back then, you ordered at the window and took the food back to your car in a cardboard “tub” to eat it. Once done scarfing down the greasy fare, you’d throw your tub into one of the turquoise-painted 55 gallon drums that served as trash cans.

Stray sauce, lettuce and onions in the car interior were usually a sign of a good gastronomic experience.

My wife, Gay, and I are known for cooking some pretty darn good meals as well as enjoying some of the finer cuisines of Kansas City’s top chefs. We pride ourselves on trying restaurants that range from no stars to four stars.

But back to Valentine’s Day. We were out and about, and I gave my wife the choice of where she wanted to go for lunch. She chose In-a-Tub. Why? She really doesn’t have a connection to the place because she grew up in Minnesota.

Rather, I think she chose it so she could watch me transform back into that goofy 18-year-old ice cream truck driver who she never got to meet — the guy I was before my taste buds started to interpret the tastes of various wines.

Before the times when I didn’t even know what foie gras or crispy veal sweetbreads were. Before a time when I could discuss sourcing of ingredients or the advantages and disadvantages of cooking techniques with local chefs.

So we went in and ordered my usual “4 extra hot and a burrito with everything.” We split this order. There’s no way these days that my older metabolism could handle that much by myself.

The grease glistened on the deep fried tacos, sauce squirted out as I bit one end and there was powdered cheese on my lips. Was the lettuce organic? Was the plating amazing? Were these “traditional” tacos? No, no and no.

Since I’m new to Instagram, I decided to post a photo of the tacos (feel free to follow me @craigjones_grillmayor). Immediately, I was hit with a barrage from both sides of the spectrum.

“What are you doing?”

“I love In-a-Tub.”

“Those aren’t authentic tacos!”

“OMG, did I see powered cheese?”

“My Favorite!”

“You won’t respect yourself in the morning.”

But it didn’t matter, you see. It was delicious to me. It made me happy. The powdered cheese took me back to simpler days. And that’s why it’s my comfort food.

I’m unapologetic. That’s what comfort food should be about. Take a trip down memory lane, and don’t get all hung up about Yelp reviews and other “stuff.”

As we silently ate those deep fried tacos, looking into each other’s eyes, my teenage brain started to kick in. And I thought to myself, “Man, she’s hot.” Maybe I’ll make an extra stop to her house when I’m done with my ice cream route.

Craig Jones is a live-fire cooking expert, the Grill Mayor for Food Network (2012), and owner of Savory Addictions Gourmet Nuts. He’s also a certified KCBS BBQ judge, a master student of pizza crafting, and an enthusiastic supporter of the greater Kansas City food scene.