Tater tots radiate a golden aura of childhood nostalgia, rolling around on school lunch trays and treasured in fast food kiddy meals. They were a frozen comfort early on in the pandemic, when Eater’s own Meghan McCarron eloquently argued they were the perfect food for quarantine, satisfying both “project cooking and fuck it cooking.” Even in the worst of the grocery shortages, you could drag your Uggs to the corner store, fish a bag of Ore-Ida out of the freezer case, dump some tots on a sheet pan, and eat them on the couch while watching Tiger King.
But now, dear readers, tots seem to be experiencing a glow-up moment, at least in recently reopened restaurants across San Francisco. Shredded, sliced, or riced; shaped into cylinders, bricks, or puffs; and topped with caviar or dunked in french onion dip; tater tots are stealing the show as irresistibly fun menu items.
It’s like wow — tater tots, when did you get so fancy?
At cool, six-month-old restaurant Ernest in the Mission, there’s a tater tot on the menu in its most classic form — except made from scratch and topped with caviar. When chef-owner Brandon Rice first opened the restaurant, he started with extra crispy Kennebec fries, before understandably asking himself, “What am I doing?!” Within a few days he switched to tots and never looked back. “It’s a great vessel for caviar,” Rice says. “I hope the higher-end-but-approachable thing came across.”
He still uses Kennebec potatoes for the finest fluff, and roasts them before grating them by elbow grease on a box grater. He then adds potato starch to bind and molds them with the same motion as a nigiri master. Fried until golden and crispy, the tots arrive tucked tidily into one bowl, with a side pool of creme fraiche, jidori eggs, and kaluga caviar, for a top-your-own-tot adventure. They’re an add-on item to the popular tasting menu, but even so, “We sell a ton of them,” the chef reports, about 30 orders a night, a solid quarter of the dining room.
And over at the newly rebranded and sexy underground Vault Steakhouse in the FiDi, tots take on a slightly different form, as a potato pavé that’s thinly sliced, stacked, and cut into bricks. Chef Ryan Cerizo says when he started to concept out the steakhouse menu, he thought of classic blini and caviar, but wanted to give the dish a modern twist. “We wanted to do caviar, but something that’s fun, a different take,” Cerizo says. “Make it more familiar, with that old nostalgia of tater tots at school. But luxurious. Like a high-end tater tot.”
He uses waxy Yukon gold potatoes, slicing them super thin on a mandoline, before overlapping them on a hotel pan. He repeats the process about 20 times until 4 inches deep, and brushes every layer with butter. Then they’re baked until softened slightly, cut into cubes, and deep fried until crisp cornered. “It’s painstaking,” Cerizo says. “But worth it.” Then he showers them with chives, shallots, sieved eggs, creme fraiche, and kaluga caviar. “The menu just reads tots, but when you actually see it, it’s kind of cool,” he says. “It’s a pile of heaven and meant for sharing.”
At hot new cocktail bar Chezchez on Valencia, the latest opening from the Trick Dog team, they’re not exactly serving tots, but satisfying the same craving with a fried potato puff. “We wanted some type of hot fried potato,” says chef Timmy Malloy, who’s also the spud whisperer behind the ultra crispy fries at Quik Dog. “We needed a potato element, but one that would fit into a French cafe and wine bar — a fried potato snack.” Someone suggested potatoes dauhpines, those puffs made of choux dough, and the chef was intrigued. “It’s like an awesome, airy, potato doughnut, if you will.”
He starts by steaming russet potatoes, and dares not densely mash them, but rices them to be extra airy. Then he folds them into an eggy choux dough, and spoons that into the fryer, so they’re not perfectly piped, but uneven oblongs that puff up magically craggy and crispy. Fully inflated, they’re piled into a bowl, and they come with “the Chezchez dip,” a cross of buttermilk ranch and French onion — aka fancy ranch — for refined dunking. “It’s probably our biggest seller,” Malloy confirms. “People don’t know what to expect … but when you hand them a potato doughnut, they’re not upset.”
Of course, the concept of caviar tots, a similar thought to caviar potato chips, and other irreverent services, is arguably nothing new. Rice says he was playing around with caviar tots years ago at Rich Table, and Malloy adds that he misses the tater tot waffle with smoked salmon at the Riddler, may it rest in closed-restaurant peace. But it’s still fun to see tater tots returning to full glory at reopened restaurants, and these aren’t the only examples: Niku Steakhouse has a breathtakingly crispy fried potato on the menu right now, and Red Window has been serving a hot take on patatas bravas.
But coming out of quarantine, there’s a lot to love about this new roll call of fancy tots. First, we no longer have to eat sad, soggy takeout fries; getting fried potatoes dropped directly on the table is a dining delight. Second, San Francisco diners seem a little more inclined to live it up with tasting menus and drink pairings, and they’re ready to splurge on that caviar add-on. But finally, we’re still craving comfort, and at the end of a long work-from-home day, tots are fun. “They’re super delicious. They’re fun to eat,” Rice says. “And they go great with a cocktail.”