It was once the highlight of school cafeteria trays across the U.S., the crème de la crème of TV dinner sides and a hurried mom’s saving grace for getting food on the table fast — the tater tot. Originally created in the 1950s by the founders of Ore-Ida, the little tot combined minced potato pieces with deep frying to create finger-friendly goodness.
Now some local chefs are bringing their own versions to Asheville, using preparation methods and flavors that reflect the area’s eclectic palate. Appalachian Chic Food Truck, for instance, is serving up tots bigger than the palm of your hand. Executive chef and co-owner Chris Cogswell says he was looking for something a little different to feature when he began planning the menu for the truck, which officially launched in June.
“Typically tots are generally little bite-size things, but we make hockey-puck-size tots,” he says.
“People are drawn to tots probably because nostalgia. When you are a kid and you get tots, it’s a fun and exciting snack. We put a fun new twist on that by making them gigantic.”
The tots weight 4 ounces each, and a full order comes with three for $2.50. Customers choose the flavor profile they want with the tots: salt and pepper, a dry BBQ seasoning or salt and vinegar. In addition to the tots coming as a stand-alone order, Appalachian Chic customers can also get them as a side dish with their entrees.
“We talked about doing hand-cut chips, but there are a lot of trucks around town doing them, so we wanted to do something different,” says Cogswell. “My wife and I cook tots at home and love them, so we decided to go with them.”
Cogswell, who has been in the food industry for 20 years (he and his wife, Stephanie, also run Perfect Occasions Catering), says that he wants to change the perception of the tater tot from a second-class food to one that will grace the plates of even the pickiest gourmets.
“We get the freshest ingredients and make them from scratch, so that it takes that cafeteria food and steps it up a notch,” he says. “Ten years ago, pork belly was a trash food and now everybody is doing it. If you just put a little more care and effort into food that is considered poverty or cafeteria food, you can make it something special.”
Each tot is shaped by hand and cooked fresh upon ordering. The tots are fried because “you can’t bake a tot. It will fall apart,” says Cogswell.
“And, it’s sacrilege not to fry them,” he added jokingly.
The Barleycorn Pub in West Asheville also serves up homemade tots with a twist. Owner Greg Campbell says he “wanted to connect with the comfort food feeling, and the tater tot fell into that category.” Plus, he adds, they are a trendy food option.
Campbell understands the kitsch fascination that people have with the tater tot, saying they “bring back memories of my generation and my kids’ generation. It’s a nostalgia thing.”
Barleycorn has chosen to stay true to the standard tater tot size and cylindrical shape, but its version differs in texture from most other recipes. “We make a tot that is based off a gnocchi recipe, which is a smooth tater tot versus the shredded type,” he says. That decision has paid off. “We sell a lot of them,” he says. Patrons can order a dish of the house tater tots with horseradish sauce for $5.
Folks looking for an even more gussied-up tot experience can find it downtown at Rhubarb.
The restaurant, which prides itself on a farm-to-table dining experience, offers Tot-Tine, a rotating tater tot dish, on its late-night menu. Sous-chef Travis Shultz calls it “an approachable bar food based on the classic poutine that lets us (the chefs) get creative with sauces and showcase local cheeses. Plus, who doesn’t love tots?”
Patrons can visit the restaurant Thursdays through Saturdays from 10 p.m. to midnight to get a taste. A dish of Tot-Tine costs around $9.50 and the selections change frequently based on seasonal ingredients.