Press-Telegram (Long Beach)
Some regional eateries put interesting touches on tater tot creations
My family had a strange relationship with tater tots. My mother never read the directions on packages, and she didn’t realize that they were supposed to be baked, and served crispy.
Instead, she steamed them in a sort of weird frat house casserole. She’d take a heavy pot, pour a layer of tater tots on the bottom, drop a frozen hamburger patty on top of that, and then pour ketchup all over the concoction. Then, she’d put it on the oven, turn the heat on low, and go out to visit friends.
Sometimes she got home before it had turned into a burnt offering. More often, she didn’t. It didn’t make much of a difference. The resulting dish was kind of an edible archeological dig — a layer of tan, topped by a layer of gray, topped by a layer of reddish-brown.
It wasn’t until I did my own shopping that I read the package and realized what she had made weren’t tater tots, they were tater mush.
In the years since, tater tots have been a staple in my freezer. And something I order when I see them on restaurant menus. Not when they’re
generic Tots – I can make those myself. But when they’re quirky, sui generis, oddball, out-in-left-field Tots. Which often they are. Though never Casserole Tots.
Tater Tots come, of course, with a history. But not one that tracks back to antiquity. They were invented in 1953, when the founders of Ore-Ida were trying to figure out what to do with all the slivers of cut-up spuds they had. According to Wikipedia, “They chopped up the slivers, added flour and seasoning, then pushed the mash through holes and sliced off pieces of the extruded mixture. Thus, tots were born…”
The name was created in an effort to find something alliterative — which they did.
Apparently, it got off to a slow start. But once it caught on, Tater Tots became (almost) as popular as french fries. These days, 70 million pounds of Tots are consumed in the USA alone per year. That’s 3.7 billion Tots. Other companies have introduced competitors made of broccoli and cauliflower. But, you know, only a spud is a spud.
For the record, there are competing brands as well, selling under names like Oven Crunchies, Tasti Taters, Tater Treats, Spud Puppies, Hash Bites, Cheesy Tots, Mexi-Nuggets, Potato Oles, Totchos and Potato Locos.
And, to my surprise, my mother’s creation was not unique — Wikipedia informs there’s a popular Midwestern casserole made of Tots, ground beef and veggies.
There also are the one-ofa-kind Tots, served an assortment of Retro-Modern local restaurants. Some of which are happily beyond the beyond. Tots like these: moist, they...I don’t know... evaporate?
And then there are the tots, which seem to be everywhere. You want tots plus, order The Love Boat — a combo of Tots, chili and slaw. With a choice of sauces for dipping. Maple syrup Sriracha? But of course.
The Grand Slam Dog has smoked bacon, a fried egg, Tater Tots (on the dog!) and maple syrup Sriracha. And then, there’s the dog called Another Night in Bangkok — a spicy Thai currywurst with peanut sauce, Asian slaw and crushed peanuts. The Kung Pao Cajun has an andouille sausage and kung pao sauce. And how about The Pig and the Fig? A sausage stuffed with Emmental cheese under a fig and onion relish. With sliced almonds? Why? Why not? All that, and a sausage called The Pig Lebowski.
Buffalo wings with pickled veggies — so much better than the requisite, watery raw carrots and celery. Ditto the roasted root veggie and farro grain salad with smoked feta, and toasted cumin vinaigrette. And yes, they do have a fine hand with smoking here, which you’ll find in the smoked brisket, a meat so tender and sweet, our local New York delis can only dream of anything as good.
Worth noting as well are the burnt ends chili, which takes the crispy, culinary objects of desire that are the crusty ends of the smoked brisket, and tossing them with ground veal, cannellini beans, smoked chilies, beer, scallions, smoked cheddar and sour cream. Served with saltines. Honestly — I’m surprised they don’t bake their own inhouse.