Tater Tots have come a long way from your school lunch tray.
The comfort (and kid) food staple, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, has been making it big on the bar scene, showing up as a crispy snack recently everywhere from neighborhood holes-in-the-wall to upscale craft bars. Meanwhile, home cooks and haute chefs alike have been inspired to come up with their own tweaks on the Tot.
Barbecue bacon wrapped Tots. Breakfast burrito Tots. Pizza Tots. Totchos — think nachos only with Tots instead of tortilla chips — and the rather meta Tots-topped baked potatoes.
It's not really surprising that so many people are inspired to become Tater creators, says Julie Crist, whose own love of the spud nuggets prompted her to open The Tot Cart, which has taken such inventions as chicken Tot pie and pulled pork Tots to the streets of the Philadelphia region.
"You can really do anything with a potato. It's like a blank canvas," she points out.
Tater Tots began humbly enough as a way to use up left over potato slivers from frozen french fries, which then were a main product of the Ore-Ida company. The Tots selling point was that they were crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside, qualities that still appeal.
At Daddy-O, a whiskey bar in New York City, owner Phillip Casaceli has been serving fried Tater Tots for about 15 years. It was one of the first menu items when the place opened in the summer of 1999. "We were a late-night crowd. The Tater Tots just worked really well with that demographic."
You can get Tater Tots kicked up with cheese and jalapenos at Daddy-O, but the straight-up Tots are also popular. "What most people are looking for is that iconic kind of Tater Tot that brings them back to their youth," says Casaceli, waxing philosophical.
Today, Casaceli estimates Daddy-O goes through 150 to 200 pounds of Tater Tots a week and he's seen the trend spread to other bars in the city. They also are on the menu at uber-hip PDT (please don't tell).
But Tater Tots aren't just big in the Big Apple. Type "Tater Tot happy hour" into Google and you'll get results from all over the country. You can find Tots served straight up with sea salt on the side, blanketed with cheese and other sauces, or taken uptown with garlic and truffles.
In Philadelphia, Crist finds her best-seller are Tots tossed in Old Bay seasoning and served with a homemade sauce of something called drunk cheese.
While many use the classic Ore-Ida Tot, some are serving house-made versions, like the brisket tots at The Gander in Manhattan. Chef Jesse Schenker starts with brisket, adds herbs, caramelized onions, apples and mozzarella, cuts the mixture into circles and rolls them in potato flakes. The finished tots are served with an aerated mustard sauce made of creme fraiche and Dijon alongside cylinders of pickled apple.
"I wanted to come up with a snack that everyone would just love," says Schenker.
He understands the lure of the classic Ore-Ida product, too. "It's something about the texture, the saltiness. It's when you bite into something and there's that crunch."
These days Ore-Ida's Tater Tots are made from dedicated potatoes — not slivers from french fry cutting — but not much has changed about the process except for some technology upgrades, says Fed Arreola, vice president of marketing for Ore-Ida. The company sells about 86 million pounds of Tater Tots each year and officials are, naturally, happy to see Tots popping up on menus and Pinterest pages.
"It's very exciting," says Arreola. "They've been in the market for 60 years and continue to be on trend."