Chow Town

Holy root beer: Eight things I learned on my first trip to Mugs-Up

Mugs-Up is known for loose-meat burgers, but the Independence drive-in also serves oversized pork tenderloins topped with pickles, mustard and onions.
Mugs-Up is known for loose-meat burgers, but the Independence drive-in also serves oversized pork tenderloins topped with pickles, mustard and onions. sgish@kcstar.com

A couple of months ago, I went to HiBoy Drive-In for the first time to try a cheeseburger, onion rings and Peach Nehi float.

After I wrote about HiBoy for our food blog, several readers reached out to recommend another classic fast food joint in Independence: Mugs-Up. The old-school drive-in is famous for loose-meat “zip burgers” and house-made root beer (hence the name).

On Thursday afternoon, I finally made the 20-minute drive from downtown Kansas City to 700 E. 23rd St. in Independence. Here are eight things I learned on my inaugural dunk in Mugs-Up:

1. The “whiz burger” is where it’s at. This small loose-meat burger costs $2.85 and packs a mighty flavor punch. It’s served on a soft, squishy bun with yellow mustard, bright green pickles and a thick slice of American cheese, but the meat is the star of the show: It’s lightly salty and seasoned to perfection.

2. Customers can order the burger seasoning to go. It costs $12.50 for a 16-ounce portion. Mugs-Up also sells T-shirts and glass root beer mugs.

3. Regulars love the root beer. Almost everyone around me ordered a root beer or a Black Cow ($1.50 for a small), which is Mugs-Up’s name for a root beer float. I really liked the classic-tasting root beer, but I might be partial to the zesty and refreshing cherry limeade ($1.50 for a small).

4. The Orangaroo is amazing. Mugs-Up’s Orangaroo ($1.50 for a small) made me a convert to the orange soda float. Imagine fizzy orange pop with a scoop of creamy vanilla ice cream. As the ice cream melted, the concoction started to taste like an orange Creamsicle — and evoked memories of my favorite scene from the ’90s Nickelodeon show “Kenan and Kel.”

5. The carhops work really, really hard. On Thursday, temperatures reached the mid-90s, but the friendly server who took my order and brought me my food wasn’t complaining.

“How do you stay cool?” I asked her from the comfort of my air-conditioned car.

“I don’t!” she said. “But at least we shut down when it’s over 105 degrees.”

6. The Independence Mugs-Up is the last of its kind in Kansas City. Owner Ann Hinojosa told me that when it opened in 1956, the Independence Mugs-Up was one of many in the metro. Now the closest location is in Columbia, Mo.

7. The pork tenderloin is huge. It’s not comically large, but the super-thin and crispy pork spills out all sides of the bun. I liked the simple toppings — just mustard, pickles and onions — and the crunchy texture of the coarse batter.

8. Onion rings are Mugs-Up’s best side. That’s according to my carhop, who enthusiastically recommended them after I asked her if I should order fries, tots or rings.

“They’re the best, hands down,” she said.

The rings were crispy, crunchy and not too greasy — and at $2.75, they might even give HiBoy’s $3.79 rings a run for their money.

Want to know more about Mugs-Up? Tune in to Chow Town’s Facebook page at 3 p.m. Wednesday. We’ll be broadcasting our weekly food show, Chow Town Live, from the iconic Independence drive-in.

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