Sunday, June 24, 2018
Dining

Gosh! These tater tots are freaking dynamite

Can this really be the 10th anniversary of Napoleon Dynamite?

The quirky indie comedy premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 17, 2004, ushering the masses into an awkward world of ligers, tetherball and dance routines set to Jamiroquai.

Oh, and tater tots. We can't forget tater tots.

I'm no food historian, so I can't state with absolute authority that Napoleon Dynamite elevated the humble tater tot from lunchroom outcast to culinary cool kid. But you're far more likely to find Napoleon's beloved bite-sized, deep-fried potato snacks on menus today than you were in 2003. Many restaurants have even turned the tot into an haute cuisine.

Take, for example, the Truffled Tater Tots at Anise Global Gastrobar in downtown Tampa. Served in a cheeky mini deep-fry basket, they come with a dish of lemon parsley creme fraiche that provides a cool, tart, perfectly complementary zing. It's such a tasty sauce you'll want to swirl your tot around in there forever — and it goes great with one of Anise's intoxicatingly fresh cocktails, such as the Rye Old Fashioned with orange peel and a boozy cherry. Tater tots and an Old Fashioned: It's just what Don Draper would have ordered in middle school.

On my way out of Anise, I picked up a card for Domani Bistro Lounge; on the back it said, "Good for one free cocktail of your choice." Which was great, because Domani makes some killer tots, too. The Tater Tots "Dauphine" are almost like mini mashed-potato balls, about the size of a golf ball with a crispy copper crust and fluffy white center. The word that comes to mind here is heat, as these tots are served piping hot with a dish of house-made curry ketchup, which has a peppery kick missing from most dipping condiments. This is a place that doesn't mess around when it comes to tater tots — intense size, intense heat, and intensely good when paired with one of Domani's cool and creative cocktails.

What I like about the tater tots at Anise and Domani is their refreshing simplicity; the tots deliver texture while a single dipping sauce provides the flavor. Most tot spots opt for a more-is-more approach, a la nachos or loaded fries. For example:

• The Brandon World of Beer's Loaded Tater Tots are not actually on the menu — they're a secret item, available only by request, and you can only get them at this location. Slathered in beer cheese, bacon, green onions, jalapenos and sour cream, they're "basically like nachos on tater tots," said my server. Seems about right for a place that also serves something called a "pint of bacon."

Engine No. 9 in St. Petersburg serves "Macho Tater Tots" topped with chili and shredded jack and cheddar cheeses. But even their regular tots — available as a side to any of their boundary-pushing burgers — get a nice dusting of pepper that knocks the flavor up a notch.

Bar Louie hosts a tater tot-eating contest every September, and one taste of their Loaded Tots might inspire you to enter. They're topped with (but not smothered by) queso, giardiniera (a tangy mix of pickled peppers and veggies), bacon and scallions. A full order is $9, or you can add a side to your burger for just $1. Or come from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays, when burgers are just $1 and tots are a little more.

• The Stein and Vine in Brandon allows customers to top their tots a la carte. Start with the $3.95 tater tot appetizer, and pile on chili ($1), cheese ($1), bacon (75 cents), jalapenos and onions (50 cents) or a fried egg (50 cents) — or, hell, get 'em "all the way" for just $4.25. Allowing customization is a welcome approach, and it's hard to go wrong putting a fried egg on anything.

Tots do make fine pub grub, but with a kiosk at the Westfield Countryside Mall and more in the works, Jimmy's Seaside Fries aims to bring them to the masses. Jimmy's loaded fry boats are available in four forms: Fries, sweet potato fries, tater tots and sweet potato tots. I recommend the plain tots served A1-A (tossed in parmesan, topped with garlic aioli and bacon bits) or Big Kahuna style (shredded pork, jalepenos, bacon bits and Jimmy's signature "seaside sauce"). The sweet potato tots are also good, but none of the toppings seem particularly suited for them (although you can get 'em drizzled with maple syrup).

If it's sweet potato tots you're craving, you really must seek out Tampa's Hott Mess food truck. This truck worships at the altar of overindulgence (dare you to order the Bacon-Wrapped Deep-Fried Hott Dog), and its multitude of tot boats do not disappoint. The most popular are the Buffalo Chicken Tots (shredded buffalo chicken, buffalo sauce, ranch, lettuce, tomato and blue cheese crumbles) a hot, spicy mess of toppings that kind of overwhelm the actual tots, making this heavy dish seem more like a massive salad or twice-baked potato. The truck also has Hott Mess Tots (seasoned ground beef, bacon, cheese sauce, chipotle lime cream and scallions), Mexi Tots (taco beef, lettuce, tomato, cheddar, salsa, sour cream and tortilla strips) and Tots-Ziki (tzatziki sauce, gyro meat, tomato, feta and Kalamata olives). All are so thick and hearty that they're barely portable; you really need a place to sit down and dive in.

But Hott Mess' piece de resistance may be its sweet potato tots, listed on the "dessert" portion of the menu. The enticing orange tots are tossed in cinnamon sugar, then topped with mini-marshmallows, which are flame-toasted before your very eyes. A generous caramel drizzle tops off what's certainly the most decadent tot dish in town.

Now go find your own, you freaking idiots, because I'm freaking starving. Gosh!

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