Tater tots for grown-ups

I’ve waxed nostalgic about Ore-Ida Tater Tots (it’s a trademark, so I have to satisfy the potato gods by capitalizing the first reference) in this space before, but I’m about to do it again, so please bear with me.

If you’re anything like me, those classic tots were an on-again, off-again staple of youth, a pleasant diversion from french fries (which are great, too, just in a different way) when paired with a grilled cheese sandwich, a hot dog or a hamburger.

I’ve seen more and more pub-grub menus around including some version of these over the last couple of years, which conjures that happy alternative from childhood. Well, Mellwood Tavern (the former Rush Inn) has upped the stakes in the form of Tavern Tots.

What are Tavern Tots, you ask? Well, they’re tots of a slightly different breed — a tot for grown-ups, if you will, and what else would you expect from a bar? Nobody is drinking a cola at Mellwood without some bourbon in it, so why settle for regular old tots?

Scott Crowder constructed the succinct menu at Mellwood — you might know his work from Chick Inn or Dark Star Tavern — and Tavern Tots are one of his pub-grub highlights.

Basically, he takes shredded potatoes, smashes them together, dips them out in individual scoops and deep fries them until they turn a brilliant orange-brown color with a crispy coating that resembles that of a hush puppy — except that it’s made of potatoes. All of it.

OK, well, that’s not completely true. I noted that these are tots for grown-ups, and I said that, in part, because he also introduces some cheddar cheese and banana peppers into the mix, adding an extra dimension of flavor.

But the end result is still more potato-focused. The latest batch I ordered came with a few packs of ketchup and a side of a sriracha-ranch blend (apparently, this is a new addition), adding yet another flavor layer, but, as I shared them with my girlfriend, we agreed that Tavern Tots are perfectly delicious on their own. Dip as you wish.

What is interesting is that these really don’t resemble your childhood tots much at all (there’s that grown-up thing again) — the texture inside is dense and fluffy, almost creamy, which no doubt is due in part to the cheese. And every so often, you’ll get a bite of banana pepper, which changes your experience momentarily with a bit of extra flavor and a hint of peppery spice.

They also don’t look much like tots from a bag, in that they finish cooking with a much darker color, plus they’re flat on the bottom, presumably from being scooped onto a tray or cutting board during prep. They’re also much bigger, probably two or three times the size of a classic tot. But perhaps one of the biggest sells are the leftover “crispies” (as Cynthia and I called them).

Think back to when you’ve eaten at Long John Silver’s, and one of the best parts of the meal being all the crumbs or crispies at the bottom of your cardboard boat. You can even order a side order of crispies at Long John’s, if you hope to heighten your crispies experience.

Well, when you order Tavern Tots, inevitably, there will be a few crispies beneath them, which are just flecks of potato that have fried to a crunchy brown and then fallen off after being removed from the fryer. And they’re as tasty little morsels much like those Long John Silver’s crispies many people seem to crave. They might even be less greasy.

On the evening Cynthia and I shared a basket of Tavern Tots (they come six for $6), she was experiencing them for the first time. I asked her impressions.

“I pictured them as a side,” she said, “but they taste more like a meal.”

Fair enough — that goes back to the size, density and flavor. Anything else?

“My fat-girl soul is happy,” she said when we had finished. “I feel like I want to take 16 more orders back home.”

If that’s not a resounding endorsement, I don’t know what is. Thing is, I agree with her. Talk about rock-solid bar food — these things would be perfect for soaking up excess beer in your belly late on a Saturday night. And that’s something your mother’s Tater Tots could never brag about.