There’s something magical about the humble Tater Tot. Some might even argue that it’s the perfect food: bite-size, salty, crispy, crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside, greasy but not overly oily, and a great vessel for just about any topping. Its abundant nooks and crannies allow for nearly limitless surface area (aka more crunch) and it boasts a pillowy interior that french fries can only hope to emulate — let’s just say there are many reasons why it’s one of our favorite childhood foods.
"Tater Tot" is actually a registered trademark of Ore-Ida, the company that invented them in 1953. Founders F. Nephi and Golden Grigg (great names) found themselves with an excess of potato scraps after making french fries, and were sick of selling them off for a pittance as animal feed. So they chopped them up, added in some flour and other seasonings, and then sent the whole mess through an extruder and into the deep-fryer. And a legend was born.
Tots straight out of the deep-fryer are certainly a wonder to behold (as many a cafeteria worker can attest), but one thing that makes tots great is their versatility. They can be eaten plain, sure, but why not top them with, say, pulled pork? In today’s no-holds-barred, the-fattier-the-better foodiverse, tots have taken off, most likely because not only does the humble processed spud serve as a great vessel for all types of toppings, it also takes us back to a simpler time, when all we needed to be happy was something deep-fried and delicious (come to think of it, that still applies).
Recently, tots have been making their way onto menus, and in a big way. Plenty of bars and restaurants are topping their tots with some unbelievable stuff, and even high-end places like Bar Boulud in New York City and The Aviary in Chicago offer highbrow versions of this lowbrow treat.
We’ve tracked down the best tots in the country, from pub grub utopia to fine dining whimsy, and ranked them accordingly. While some are made in-house, others are simply fried to perfection and topped with something great. The main criteria? All these tots hit that spot that only the perfect tot can hit.
So loosen your belt, and read on for our list of the country's top tots.
1. The Tot Cart, Philadelphia
Roaming the campus of Temple University is The Tot Cart, possibly the most awesome thing that can appear after a night of heavy drinking. A proprietary cheese sauce (called, what else, Drunk Cheese) is the preferred topping, but wing sauce and blue cheese, Old Bay, and garlic and Parmesan are also offered, along with a rotating list of specials.
2. Crif Dogs, New York City
This duo of hot dog shops in Manhattan's East Village and Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood is best known for their insane array of hot dog toppings (bacon-wrapped, deep-fried, and topped with baked beans, pineapple, and cheese? Go for it), but their perfectly fried tater tots, served in a foil-lined paper boat, are quite possibly a better vessel for the toppings than even the hot dogs. Egg, bacon, Taylor ham, cheese sauce, chili, pineapple, avocado; the possibilities are endless. And if you happen to be in the East Village location, pick up the phone in the phone booth and see what happens.
3. Bullitt, San Francisco
Named after a movie with one of history's greatest car chases, San Francisco's Bullitt is a small, dark, stylish bar thats seemingly perpetually packed. Snag a place to sit, though, because you'll want to work your way through their Tater Tot Bar. Thats right: their menu boasts an entire tot section. Sweet potato tots, garlic tots, truffle tots, bacon-blue cheese tots, mac and cheese tots, even the famous Tot-Chos, topped with nachos fixings, are all available here. Save the Mac and Cheese Bar for another day.
4. Pork Slope, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Chef Dale Talde is a creative wizard in the kitchen, as anyone who's seen him on Top Chef or eaten at his eponymous Brooklyn restaurant will know. But he decided to go lowbrow with his second restaurant endeavor, to great effect. The tots at his Park Slope "roadhouse," Pork Slope, are fried to perfection and topped with smoky pulled pork, brisket, chili, brisket, an egg, cheese, bacon, or any combination of the above. Bacon, egg, and cheese tots for breakfast? Why not!
5. P.J. Clarke’s, Various Locations
This ancient Midtown Manhattan bar spawned five other locations across the country and even down into Brazil, and their burgers and fries helped to put them on the map. A lesser-known star menu item, though, is their tater tots, made in-house. These aren't just gussied-up croquettes, either; they're the real deal. Some Parmesan cheese is added to the mix, and they're given a dusting of Parm and parsley before being brought to the table alongside smoky tomato ketchup. Who needs fries when these are an option?
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