An Ode to In-A-Tub, a Northland Icon
When my sister and I were growing up in Kansas City’s Northland, Saturdays in summer meant In-A-Tub and Waterworks Park. Good weather tempted us outside, on condition that Dad first pull his Buick up to the order window at In-A-Tub. On the way to the park, we ripped into the French fries while climbing the bluffs to our favorite picnic table. Once situated, it was pure joy to open the sack and pull out pocketburgers, tacos, and onion rings. With our dad’s attention on us and playground equipment beckoning when we were full, it is no wonder that In-A-Tub evokes fond memories. Ask most Kansas City Northlanders about In-A-Tub and chances are good that they, too, will have a heartfelt story tied to a favorite treat from this Northland institution.
In-A-Tub is left over from an era when drive-ins dotted the KC Metro. National franchises had yet to dominate the landscape, and thus, local establishments flourished. While they often offered similar food, typically hamburgers and malts, chili and tenderloins, each had its own flavor and distinct character. Some, including In-A-Tub, have held on and continue to compete against the tidal wave of fast food joints that rushed in in the 1970s, while most were overwhelmed and shut down. Remember Smaks’? Earl’s?
In-A-Tub’s proud heritage began in the early ‘50s when Marion and Walt Carpenter opened a kiosk at 4159 N. Oak Trafficway. Originally called 50 Flavors In A Tub, the Carpenters mixed ice cream with various syrups and fruits, catering to everyone’s tastes and one-upping Howard Johnson’s, limited to a mere 28 ice cream flavors.
By 1957, the Carpenters began adding the savory treats that the restaurant is known for, and also around that time, the name changed to In-A-Tub. A 1964 North Kansas City High School Football schedule urged Hornets to meet after the game for “tacos, fries, steaks, pocketburgers, tenderloins and 50 flavors of sundaes, malts and shakes!” Hornets were so loyal to the drive-in that the Class of 1952’s twenty-fifth reunion was catered by In-A-Tub, where students downed hundreds of tacos, recalled alum John Erickson.
The Carpenters moved their drive-in to a nearby location at 3721 North Oak, and then in 1986, Joe Scruby, the second owner, built a third incarnation, this time a sit-down restaurant at 4000 North Oak where it operates today. When Joe retired, his son Mike took over, and when Mike retired in 2001, he sold it to Aaron Beeman who had previously owned an In-A-Tub at Metro North Mall. Aaron’s sister, Andrea Beeman LaMunyon, owns Kansas City’s other last remaining In-A-Tub, one located on Prairie View Road off of I-29.Mike Scruby, former owner, with Aaron Beeman, current owner, circa 2017. Author's photo
From the late 1950s up through today, In-A-Tub is famous for tacos. Last year, Ralat featured In-A-Tub among other Kansas City Restaurant Icons in his article, "The Demand for Authenticity Is Threatening Kansas City's Homegrown Tacos." Ralat described for his Eater audience the process In-A-Tub cooks have always used to prepare their tacos: clipping a fresh corn tortilla around gently seasoned ground beef before dunking it in boiling oil where the tortilla crisps and the meat reheats. After draining, the taco is pried apart so that cold toppings—shredded lettuce and diced tomatoes—can be added. Although Parmesan cheese was typical on such a creation, given that Mexicans worked alongside Italians in KC railyards, meatpacking plants, and the stockyards, In-A-Tub uses a bright orange cheese powder that reminds me of another love of mine, the cheddar cheese popcorn from Topsy's Popcorn.
No other KC Mexican restaurant or drive-in tops its taco with cheese powder, a finish that In-A-Tub aficionados consider a requisite and that perpetuates a non-winnable debate about whether or not such a finish is gross or delicious.In-A-Tub Menu, Facebook, 2022
While many Northlanders rhapsodize over In-A-Tub’s tacos, I have to give attention to the pocketburger, my favorite indulgence. The word “pocketburger,” or pocket burger, is unusual. Some think of the “Juicy Lucy,” where a pocket is formed inside the burger patty and cheese is encased. Marion Carpenter’s pocketburger, however, resembles the Iowa Maid-Rite or the Kansas NuWAY Burgers: loose-meat sandwiches like Sloppy Joe sans tomato sauce. At In-A-Tub, the meat is somewhat held together with a bit of flour, and it is flavored with an irresistible combination of sharp ballpark mustard and sweet-sour pickle relish. Topped with American cheese that quickly melts and thus continues to bind the loose meat together, the pocketburger is easy to eat—too easy. They go down so fast that you are apt to want to eat more than one—and one is plenty if you have any health sense at all! At any rate, Marion’s pocketburgers remain unchanged from the original recipe.A classic pocketburger with cheese, author's photo
In-A-Tub’s magic is its ability to maintain the original recipes and keep quality and flavor consistent over decades; this is not easy to do, Aaron Beeman explained to me. Instead of allowing large food distributors to handle the bulk of his weekly food order, Beeman does what Mike Scruby did, what Joe Scruby did, and what the Carpenters did: he searches out local family food purveyors and distributors. Staying with local businesses is so integral to In-A-Tub’s reputation, Beeman rightly maintains, that it is worth the detective work and the occasional hassle. Taco sauces and seasonings, tortillas, tamales, and other specialty ingredients come largely from family businesses in Kansas City, Kansas, including Silva's and Perez Food Products. The hamburger is ground in Kansas City and delivered fresh to In-A-Tub. Beeman’s insistence on working with local businesses means that the money stays in in Kansas City, and everyone here thus benefits, from business owners and deliverers, to local employees and In-A-Tub’s patrons.
I love it when I pull into In-A-Tub off of North Oak Trafficway and star at the next door McDonald's with no cars going through its drive-thru while the In-A-Tub parking lot is full, and the drive-thru there a healthy wait.
Special thanks to Mike Scruby, Aaron Beeman, Charlie Broomfield, and Charlie Erickson for their help with this article. For more references, check out:
In-A-Tub’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/In-A-Tub/50667235066?fref=ts
The content of this post and photos are exclusively the right of its author, Andrea Broomfield. Reproduction is prohibited without proper acknowledgment.