The single best thing about Mug "n" Bun, the popular drive-in restaurant on the city"s Westside, is that it has never yielded to the temptation of redefining itself in terms of nostalgia: never hung up pictures of Marilyn Monroe or strapped roller skates to its carhops or decorated with old 45s or renamed itself Reminiscing Drive-In. But the (very close) second-best thing about Mug "n" Bun is the root beer, made from the same recipe for over 40 years, one of the great secret treasures of Indianapolis. Root beer: Has any drink ever been so evocatively named? As a child, years before I understood that the term actually referred to something (a beverage made from roots), the very words seemed to me to be charged with magic: a drink that one searched for in the woods, or that was perhaps invented by carnival barkers. One of my most mysterious childhood memories is of my father coming home one night with a jug of homemade root beer. I have no idea where it came from and no one else in my family remembers the incident at all. Nor do I have any memory of how the stuff tasted - only that its appearance that night caused a fair amount of excitement, constituted a small event.
What it may very well have tasted like is the dark brown brew sold these days at Mug "n" Bun. When one thinks about what constitutes a good root beer, the word "creamy" is likely to spring to mind. And yet, how many commercially available root beers actually taste creamy? In fact, most taste just the opposite: sharp and acidic. Disappointing root beer has a lot in common with disappointing mincemeat: Both are dominated by a sickly sweetness, redolent of hard candy. Whereas, good root beer - like good mincemeat - has a deep, mellow flavor. I"ve always felt that a reliable measure of a root beer"s quality is the extent to which it doesn"t taste like root beer barrels, that particularly unbearable strain of rock candy.
Mug "n" Bun"s root beer is about as far from that candy taste as you can get: legitimately creamy, yes, but also smoky, carrying hints of vanilla fudge and molasses, as rich and smooth as a dessert wine. This root beer is barely carbonated at all, its bite provided solely by the coldness of its serving temperature. It"s easy to imagine that this is what soft drinks might have tasted like in the early part of the 20th century, before regional flavors and recipes became standardized.
The particular recipe for Mug "n" Bun"s root beer was developed over a period of two years by original owner Morris May. May says that once he purchased (and renamed) the former Frostop Drive-In in 1960, "I decided everything there could be improved on." And so began (among other things) a two-year quest for the ultimate root beer. First May located what he felt was the best brand of root beer extract, then experimented until he hit upon the optimum balance of sugar, water, extract and carbonation. He even ascertained the temperature at which his brew tasted best - 42 degrees - and, taking into account the three degrees that the drink warmed up between tap and customer (!), set the controls accordingly. Here was a man who cared about root beer.
After 38 years in business, the 65-year-old May sold Mug "n" Bun in 1998 - but only after he was satisfied that new owners Ron and Jay Watson (brothers) would maintain the drive-in"s high standards. The Watsons were eager to oblige. They know they have something special in Mug "n" Bun and have not changed a thing. The root beer is still made in the basement every day - the syrup mixed by hand in 40-gallon metal vats, the recipe ratios precise and unvarying. In fact, they make and sell 800 gallons of root beer every day. It is available not just in frosted mugs, but in gallon (and half-gallon) plastic milk jugs for take-home. Some customers have purchased as much as 20 gallons at a time. The Watsons claim that the one downside to their root beer is that it doesn"t keep as long as more carbonated brands. However, in my opinion (and unlike any other soda pop that I know of), even after Mug "n" Bun"s root beer loses its fizz, it remains a very tasty, totally drinkable beverage. It"s almost like it has more in common with German wheat beer than with American soft drinks.
May still stops by the drive-in regularly to check on his baby - to visit with longtime employees and to make sure the Watsons are keeping the root beer and coney sauce (another Mug "n" Bun original) up to snuff. So far, he says, "I think they"re doing a fine job. I"m very proud of them." And dozens of loyal customers stop by at least that often to enjoy a tenderloin or double cheeseburger and a tall 42-degree mug of the best root beer in Indianapolis.
Dale Lawrence is a local musician associated with the Vulgar Boatmen; his recently-published book on Indiana basketball is Hoosier Hysteria Road Book.