John Updike once gave this sage advice about literary criticism: “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” That same rule applies to eating dinner at The Mug on a crisp autumn night in Irvington, when a pieced-together table of 11 can manage to order almost everything on a menu that drifts from farm-raised pork tenderloins to soft-serve ice cream to wine by the (plastic) glass, and leave happily un-wowed. If this no-frills, family-friendly new kid on the block fails to blaze any epicurean trails, it did not attempt to do so, either.
We happened to be just one of two big parties on that packed Sunday night—everyone crammed into a space no roomier than a community church meeting area, which is exactly what the 75-seat restaurant embedded in a historic eastside neighborhood used to be. The menu didn’t overpromise. Ketchup-tinged sloppy Joe meat topped a plump Kiply Dog. Shredded pork, ham, and bacon layered in the proper smashed proportion to Swiss cheese, pickles, mayo, and stone-ground mustard filled a pressed Cuban sandwich. Cold Sprecher root beer, sipped un-iced from waxed-paper cups, provided a sweet, smooth throwback to summer nights tucked under the awning of a drive-in. In fact, nostalgia is the key ingredient in nearly everything that comes out of The Mug’s bright, open-concept kitchen, including extra-creamy macaroni and cheese made with fat elbow noodles, and Styrofoam cups of diner-style coleslaw prepared as comfort food, with that familiar family pitch-in tinge of sweetness.
No location could have been more welcoming of such a likable low-achiever than Irvington. For months before the Bill Murray of restaurants’ September opening, the scruffy indie pocket, birthplace of Beast Burger food truck and Black Acre Brewing, where the neighborhood ice cream shop offers both vegan options and halo halo, eagerly awaited the arrival of its newest dining option. The second incarnation of entrepreneur Chris Baggott’s farm-to-curb concept that started in Greenfield (in a repurposed Frosty Mug drive-in restaurant) checked every box for a successful run in the land of neighborhood-backed ghost-hunting tours and holiday paper-bag luminaria campaigns. Irvington is a tight community—an artsy island of craft beer and fitness-trail enthusiasts. All it needed was a walkable, exuberantly dog-friendly general-purpose hangout where locals could discuss their hosta gardens and flooded basements over pints of hoppy Three Floyd’s YumYum. A three-way liquor license is in the works at The Mug. It would be Irvington’s first foray into the hard stuff. Let the merriment begin.
As with all of the eating establishments in its bloodline, The Mug hoists its “eat local” banner high. The meat all comes from Greenfield’s Tyner Pond Farm, which Baggott—cofounder of Indy tech firm ExactTarget—started after stepping away from the company that was sold to Salesforce in 2013 for $2.5 billion. Dealing in humanely raised, drug-free cattle, pigs, chickens, turkey, and lamb, Tyner Pond created enough of a meat supply that Baggott started opening his own restaurants, including The Mug and Griggsby’s Station in Greenfield and the ClusterTruck food-delivery service that uses a sophisticated online ordering system and an Uber-inspired fleet of vehicles to cover a 3-mile (and growing) radius downtown. His empire continues to expand, with Bonna Tavern planned to open a few doors down from The Mug in Irvington, on the other side of the cozy Tyner Pond Market, a boutique grocery stocked with the Hancock County farm’s meats as well as novelties like packaged jackfruit and frozen Sitka Salmon.
Baggott’s philosophy for his portfolio of eateries—keep the food supply local and the ingredients as pure as possible—stands out as one of the most earnest attempts to clean up the way Indianapolis dines out. (What other restaurant in town boasts its own sustainably farmed backyard pasture?)
But though his casual brand brings the concept to Everyman’s bar top—here, in the form of tavern-style grilled burgers like an $8.75 jalapeño–
cream cheese–bacon number topped with poppers, and the triple-decker Mug-a-Nator—it ignores the gourmet aspirations of equally vigilant eateries. Even so, The Mug will probably never run low on diners who just want to eat a double-decker Ultimate BLT layered with enough bacon for a week’s worth of breakfasts, or work through a pile of batter-dipped fries weighted down with barbecue-sauced pulled pork raised in the next county and served in one of the restaurant’s standard-issue baskets lined with checked paper.
Sweet servers take orders at a counter that doubles as an ice cream case (featuring locally churned flavors from Sundae’s) and a small bar area comically cordoned off for people 21 and older. TV-screen menus list items like Aunt Polly’s Sloppy Joe and Aunt Patti’s Grilled Cheeser, five types of hot dogs made with Tyner Pond’s shoulder and loin cuts hand-stuffed into natural casings, and a little bowl of bacon and sweet corn flavored with caramelized leeks. The star of the show is the breaded pork tenderloin, the Tyner Pond hallmark that is as big as a dinner plate. It’s cut thicker than most versions of the Hoosier favorite, and fried in a cornmeal batter that adds flavor and girth without detracting from the massive cut of pounded meat. This sandwich has its own fan club of devotees who have followed it from Greenfield to ClusterTruck to here. This type of diner might have a higher tolerance for, say, carelessly prepared sweet-potato waffle fries that have glommed into a starchy orange tumbleweed, or a grilled cheese sandwich dolled up with pulled pork and macaroni and cheese—but all of it clumped haphazardly into a mound at the edge of the bread. Or the hunter-gatherer mode required to locate packets of condiments and paper napkins.
As hard as it is to complain about the gourmet aspirations of a counter-service restaurant with a price point that competes with fast food, one does wonder what The Mug could accomplish if it put forth just a little more effort. Would it lose its charm? Would it get lost in the fast-casual crowd? Would that put its comfortable niche—attempting nothing more than what it is able to deliver—at risk? The problem with playing it safe is that the result is always just good enough, but never delicious.
Simple and fresh Hoosier fare from the fryer and grill-top.
The enormous breaded pork tenderloin.
Burgers $2.75–$8.50, sandwiches and hot dogs $4–$8.25, sides $1–$4