Tater Tots Are The Steve Buscemi Of Food; It’s Time You Show Them Some Love

Working Title Films/Shutterstock

Before I hop on my soapbox about fried potatoes, I’m gonna hop on my soapbox about Steve Buscemi. The man has been in some of the most unforgettable movies of the past 30 years — Reservoir Dogs, Big Lebowski, Fargo — and some of the most forgettable movies of any time period — I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Mr. Deeds, Grownups 2 (you may notice a pattern).

But as great as he is, Steve Buscemi isn’t the sort of person who carries a movie. He’s one of the best actors of his generation, but he’s simply not a cinematic leading man  — his particular brand of magic comes from making the people around him better. His performances are so consistently wonderful that he lays a foundation of professional competence and audience goodwill that can elevate an entire movie (even a movie in the post-’97 Adam Sandler oeuvre).

Which is why I am ready to declare tater tots the Steve Buscemi of food.

shutterstock tots

For too long, tater tots have been miscast.

For too long, tater tots were segregated into their own pre-molded section of the lunch tray.

For too long, tater tots were offered as a slightly less satisfying alternative to french fries.

For too long, tater tots have been dressed up with truffle oil and pecorino shavings to make them more “interesting.”

Still, through all this misuse, the tater tot remains so fundamentally “pretty good” that even the most neglectful cafeteria lady cannot make them disgusting. The tater tot is so foolproof that even the most inebriated man, the most underpowered toaster oven, and the most budget friendly bag of frozen tots can still be combined into a passable meal. Just like how Steve Buscemi would still be “pretty good” even if he was cast as the lead beefcake in a Cinemax sex romp. (Fingers crossed, we’ll find this out for certain one day.)

But soft core porn is not the proper application of Steve Buscemi. He is at his best, his most brilliant, his most Buscemi, when he is the background — the humble, unassuming, indispensable spine that turns disparate elements into a greater whole.

And tater tots are exactly the same.

Some restaurants have finally recognized the tater tot for the food it was always meant to be — not a main course, not a side dish, but the foundation. Like Komodo which has used tater tots as the base for their Brutus Salad, which does not have a single leaf on the plate, but is made of steak, bacon, and streaks of citrusy pesto sauce over a mound of crisp tots. The dish is so goddamn delectable that they could have called it the “Brutus Shoe” and I would have been equally happy.

Any fool can tell that the Brutus Salad is actually nachos with tater tots instead of tortilla chips. Those tater tots performed better than any normal tortilla chip ever could. Not only because the tot was so expertly fried that it kept the same crisp texture throughout the meal, but because the shreds of soft potato inside that tidy rectangle of tuber goodness absorbed the pesto and steak juice and homemade salsa from the “salad” so the dish actually became better the longer it sat on the table. Regular nachos, sadly, almost always devolve into a slop of muddled flavors and limp chips before they can be finished. But the Brutus Salad still tasted delicious (and crispy) an hour after I brought it home.

This dish was The Big Lebowski. The other elements were great, but those tots, like Buscemi’s performance, provided the steady, occasionally spectacular, beats that connected the disparate elements into an unforgettable whole.

Or consider the sisig tater tots at Belly and Snout, which used tater tots instead of rice as the base. Despite the flaws in this dish — eating meat and potatoes can get a bit tedious when every bite tastes like meat and potatoes — the tater tots provided some much needed texture.

This dish was Airheads. There were flaws, there were missteps, there were times it seemed the entire effort would end in chaos, but the calming presence of Buscemi (and those tots) steered it from disaster. And just like when Airheads shows up on cable, I know I’ll give those sisig tater tots another chance.

Or what about the chilaquiles at Trois Familia? As Trois Familia has figured out, fried potatoes — tots or hash browns — work perfectly as a substitute base for chilaquiles. With some notable exceptions, the fried tortillas that form the base of chilaquiles are usually soggy on arrival, but even the best preparations get waterlogged with salsa before long. But not the potato-based chilaquiles at Trois Familia. Like the tots in the Brutus Salad at Komodo, the exterior remained crisp throughout the meal, and the salsa and egg yolk that oozed through the cracks only imparted those amazing flavors onto the soft shreds of potato inside.

This dish was Fargo. Because it still would have been great with a different actor besides Buscemi, but he (and those tots) made something great even more wonderful.

I hope that more restaurants will follow the brave examples of Komodo, Belly and Snout, and Trois Familia. I hope that bold young chefs will embrace the tater tot for the culinary marvel it truly is. I hope that cheeseburgers will be served with hash brown buns (and they are!), and gnocchi will be replaced with their infinitely greasier, infinitely easier to pronounce cousins. I even hope that our nation’s greatest food scientists will get to work on creating a soup bowl molded from tater tots — because it is high goddamn time that sourdough lets somebody else have a shot at soup-serving glory.

I hope that you eat more tater tots. Not because they are the tastiest food, or the healthiest food, or the most sophisticated food, but because they are the Buscemi-est food.

And like Buscemi, they make everything better.