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How Did Tater Tots End Up on Mexican Menus?

Eater logo Eater 4/23/2019 Emilly Prado
a plate of food

Often taken for granted, Tater Tots are more than just a dive-bar staple — they’re a part of the Mexican dining landscape across the Pacific Northwest.

In certain corners of the Mexican fast-food universe, Tater Tots — deep-fried, pillowy pockets of grated potato bits that are a cousin of sorts to the french fry — have become a staple side offering next to rice and refried beans.

At Taco Time in the Pacific Northwest, seasoning is sprinkled on top of Tater Tots and they’re dubbed “Mexi-Fries” to make them “South of the Border” treats; the Mexi-Fries have been offered since the mid-’70s. Taco John’s, a franchise of more than 400 locations started in Cheyenne, Wyoming, has served up Potato Olés — thinner, flattened Tater Tots with seasoning — on its menus as far back as 1979. Taco Bell once served a version of Tater Tots that it called “Mexi-Nuggets,” and after it was pulled from menus, several online petitions and Facebook groups hoped to bring them back. (Taco Bell’s current potato offering, dubbed “fiesta potatoes,” are slightly soft-in-the-middle potato chunks — not quite tots.)

From those tots on Mexican food menus came a bold innovation: the totcho. The dish, a culinary mashup now found in dive bars and restaurants across the country, ingeniously swaps in Tater Tots for tortilla chips, piling the fried potatoes high with classic nacho toppings like sour cream, salsa, melted cheese, and sliced black olives.

To fully understand the origins of the totcho, one must first understand its parents. In 1954, on the easternmost edge of Oregon in a town called Ontario, the Ore-Ida factory (then called Oregon Frozen Foods Company) debuted a product called Tater Tots that would soon become its signature offering. Business had been booming just a few years into selling sweet corn and french fries to the masses, but brothers and owners F. Nephi and Golden Grigg had a problem: They were wasting a whole lot of potato scraps (aka money) slicing quadrilateral fries out of the lumpy, lopsided nightshades.

a bowl of food on a plate a hand holding a cup

After spending some time peddling the scraps as cattle feed, the Grigg brothers added salt, oil, and corn flour to develop a starchy mix they rolled into nuggets and then deep-fried to a delicious, golden brown. Tater Tots (a registered trademark of Ore-Ida, now owned by Kraft Heinz) took off, and were happily sprinkled onto cafeteria trays of children across the United States and shoved into the pockets of Napoleon Dynamite more than half a century later.

While Tater Tots are most certainly a product of the Pacific Northwest, part two of the totcho is, of course, the nacho, which hails from the U.S-Mexico borderlands.

Like all great stories, the saga of the nacho was spawned from drama; in this case, the drama of some hungry, wandering Americans and a missing chef. In 1943, Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya was managing a restaurant in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, when his cook stepped out and the new patrons, supposedly Americans from a military base just across the border in Eagle Pass, Texas, had just stepped in. In a moment of desperation, Anaya reportedly grabbed tortilla chips, topped them with shredded cheese and jalapenos, then melted the mixture under a broiler (or maybe in an oven) before serving them to the very lucky restaurantgoers.

As Anaya’s creation carried over into Texas, and later the rest of the United States, his nickname went along. Its staying power was so strong, it even stuck during the 1970s, when Frank Liberto adapted the recipe in Arlington, Texas, by substituting shredded cheddar with a gooey, amber yellow concoction (not officially “cheese” according to the FDA) heated by a hot fudge warmer. This was the trick that enabled a topping with a much longer shelf life and the speed necessary for baseball fans to make it back to their seats before the next inning.

It’s unclear when the nacho and Tater Tot met, but the late Ron Fraedrick and his original Taco Time menu lend a few clues. The Oregonian was inspired by Southern California cuisine and was eager to introduce non-Mexican Pacific Northwesterners to tacos upon his return. Taco Time debuted in Eugene, Oregon, in 1960, and its original menu included tacos, tostadas, and milkshakes, as well as a “taco burger.” According to Taco Time brand president Kevin Gingrich, the tots, which were introduced a decade later, “are a great change from taco chips or nachos traditionally found in Mexican restaurants. They make a great side item to any taco or burrito, and — my favorite — are really good to dip in all of our sauces.” Research conducted by Potatoes USA backs this up, citing tots as the second-most used frozen potato product in food service.

A few years after Taco Time added tots to its menu, Taco John’s introduced its own version. Originally, each little “Potato Olé” potato crisp included a small bean inside, but it went away at some point in the following decades. The cult favorite underwent a major change in 2001, when the chain introduced Super Potato Olés, which were just like regular Potato Olés but now topped with, as the current menu lists, “specially seasoned beef, beans, cheddar cheese, tomatoes, nacho cheese sauce, sour cream, guacamole, olives, and onion” — a recipe that’s likely the originator of the totcho. Taco Time’s own totcho version, “Mexi-Fries Grande,” debuted in 2007; its menu now also offers “Stuffed Mexi-Fries,” or tots stuffed with cheddar cheese and diced jalapeno.

The “totcho” portmanteau likely also originates from the Pacific Northwest, as determined by reporter Ben Waterhouse for the Oregonian in 2015 after “several hours of searching periodicals, cookbooks, and the Internet.” As legend goes, it probably starts with the late Jim Parker, a craft beer brewer and former journalist who added the item to Southeast Portland’s Oaks Bottom Public House’s menu when it opened in 2006.

“The way I remember is: I think he saw this dish — this nachos-made-with-Tater Tots — somewhere in Colorado, where he came from,” says Lompoc Brewing and Oaks Bottom owner Jerry Fechter. Fechter says the details are hazy — with the night having occurred over a decade ago and “enhanced by a couple of malt beverages” — but that Parker was a spectacular ideas guy.

“People elsewhere have made some nachos with Tater Tots, but no one had called it the totcho,” Fechter says. “[I’m] not trying to take anything away from Jim, because I do think that the actual name ‘totcho’ probably should be Jim’s.” (Onetime Oaks Bottom bartender Jonathan Carmean, who Parker once credited with suggesting the name “totcho,” and Taco John’s did not return requests for comment. When Parker passed away from a stroke in February 2019, the Oregonian’s headline announced the inventor of totchos had died.)

Whether or not Taco John’s, then, is the true inventor of totchos is more than a semantic debate. Maybe the Taco John’s menu item isn’t technically “totchos” because they’re not made with Ore-Ida Tater Tots. Or maybe they are totchos because Taco John’s potato rounds are, despite their different shape, essentially tots. Perhaps the distinction of nacho cheese sauce on the Taco John’s version in addition to shredded cheddar makes it a related but decidedly different dish.

The menu at Oaks Bottom doesn’t call their totcho the first or even the best, but every few years it takes time to honor its specialty by hosting “Totchos of the World,” a seasonal sampling featuring totchos dressed in flavors inspired by several different countries. “It’s a fun play on it,” Fechter says. “You get a little passport. Every time you get one [dish], you get a stamp. If you get all six and bring it in, you get a free pint and happy hour-sized totcho.” Past flavors include one topped with Italian tomato sauce and meatballs and an English bangers totcho.

Today you can find totchos in every corner of the United States, and many versions are removed from its faux Mexican-food origins. You can get Bayou-inspired tots drowned in country ham gravy with barbecued pork, “Memphis Totchos” with banana and bacon at the Minnesota State Fair, Frito pie-inspired chili totchos at Disney World, and even breakfast totchos with freshly scrambled eggs in Atlanta (at a place that opened in 2009 and calls themselves the home of totcho).

Whatever the provenance of totchos, the indisputable truth is that the Tater Tot is simply one of the best vessels for toppings: It has more surface area than a french fry, has an adorable cylindrical shape, and is easy to pop in your mouth in one bite. While we may never truly know who can stake their claim as the one and only totcho inventor, the dish is the epitome of Mexican-American fusion cuisine in the United States. Long live the totcho, whoever the heck invented it.

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Emilly Pradois a Chicana writer and DJ based in Portland, Oregon.

Celeste Nocheis a food, travel, and portrait photographer based between Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco.

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