Mug N Bun
5211 W. 10th Street, Indianapolis IN 46224; map); 317-244-5669; mug-n-bun.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: Circa 1960 drive-in makes classic fast food-style burger served by carhops
Want Fries with That? Yes please: classic crinkle cut, fried in canola oil
Price: Single with cheese, $2; double with cheese, $3.10
Notes: Don't miss the homemade root beer
The carhop at Mug N Bun was bundled up in a thick winter jacket, a scarf wrapped tightly around her neck, and a ski cap pulled down snugly over her forehead. Her every breath was betrayed by a white plume of water vapor, dissipating like the smoke from a film noir actor's cigarette.
Winter in Indiana is a chilly affair and I can think of few climates less hospitable for carhop service than the flat stretch of road on Indianapolis' West Side. Carhop service makes sense in the warm, bright California sunshine or on languid, humid Southern roads, but a carhop in Indiana deserves hazard pay, at least during the winter.
Mug N Bun is such an anachronism that not even the carhop understands why the place still exists. "I don't get why people don't just go to McDonald's," she confessed. Of course you won't find homemade root beer (Mug) or pork tenderloin sandwiches (Bun) at McDonald's, nor even a hamburger anywhere near as good you can get at Mug N Bun.
Mug N Bun has been around for 50 years, and while the specialties are the aforementioned root beer and tenderloin sandwich, they serve a fine example of a fast food/drive-in-style burger. While it's not the last word in beefy flavor, not does it have a terrific sear or much juice, it handily trounces the fast food chains that carhop wondered about.
A single comes served on a lovely white bun with a goopy slice of American cheese for $2. The beef is fresh, predictably underseasoned, and perhaps a little lost in the bun. I ordered the burger plain, as is my custom for reasons both personal and professional.
My purist tendencies aside, this is not the burger to go commando style with. It needs pickles and onions at the very least, and tomato and lettuce along with some mustard, mayo, or even ketchup would help. It is what I call a "synergy" burger, deriving its joy as much from what goes on it as much from what is in it.
I also tried the double, which is unique in my experience in that it combines a regular bun with a slice of white bread between the two patties. I am not sure why it's there—it doesn't really add anything and it skews the bun-to-beef ratio a little towards the bready. The omission of it would probably improve the sandwich. As with the single, the double would benefit from some additional toppings.
When I told the waitress that I thought people loved Mug N Bun so much precisely because it's so old and unchanged, serving as a window to the past, she nodded in agreement as if she knew it all along. She wasn't wondering why people didn't go to McDonald's; she was questioning why she had to venture out into the cold every time someone wanted a tenderloin, root beer, or cheeseburger.