By CHARLES FERRUZZA
This spring, the 50-year-old Clem’s Drive-In re-opened at 10802 E. 23rd Street in Independence. It had closed in March 2007 after its most recent owner, Brent Gilbert, decided to move on to other ventures. Bob and Janet Andrist bought the business, which still boasts, more or less, the original menu: crumbly-meat sandwiches, chili dogs, chili, milkshakes and onion rings.
There’s some debate as to when the first American drive-in was invented. Some credit Roy Allen, the businessman in Lodi, California who started selling homemade root beer in frosty mugs in 1919. He opened a root beer stand with “tray boys” offering curb service a couple of years later; in 1922 he took in a partner, Frank Wright, combined their first initials and called their most popular product A&W Root Beer.
But food historian John Mariani credits a Texas candy and tobacco salesman named J.G. Kirby with creating the drive-in. Kirby reportedly decided that “People with cars are so lazy they don’t want to get out of them to eat.” In September of 1921, Kirby opened a barbecue joint on a Dallas highway called The Pig Stand. Employees became “car hops,” Mariani reports, because they had to climb up on a roadster’s running board to take an order.
These days, Clem’s may be the only restaurant in town that serves a fried pork brain sandwich (it’s $3.10), although the loose-meat sandwiches are Clem’s signature dish. I wasn’t thrilled with the surprisingly bland crumbly sandwich, and the ice cream machine wasn’t working so I couldn’t have a chocolate malt. I did eat all the heavily breaded fried dill pickles that arrived on a paper tray.
I tasted the pork brain sandwich once. Under that crispy exterior, the pork brain was fluffy and soft and sort of earthy-tasting. A couple of bites and I tossed the rest out the window.