Portland, Oregon is arguably the top food city in the U.S. right now. With a blue collar background, a love of all things local, and artisan everything, our food scene is dynamic. We have something for everyone, from vegan barbecue to brûléed bone marrow.
A desire to innovate the classics with new ingredients and a huge market for comfort food (it rains a lot, if you haven’t heard) have conspired to form a movement of nostalgic foods and products.
One iconic quirky Portland dish that's right up there with bacon maple bar doughnuts is the “totcho,” a plate of tater tots, the fried, cafeteria favorite, covered in the cheese and toppings that usually accompany the sports bar nacho.
When it was invented almost a decade ago by Jim Parker, the owner of Oaks Bottom Public House, his cooks thought he was crazy. But Mr. Parker’s idea quickly spread to several other bars and became a staple on many menus here in the Rose City.
My first meeting with the nacho of tots was an eye opening experience. As a former bar cook, I immediately had the why-didn’t-I-think-of-this regret: There may not be a better food to go with beer.
Oregonians are quite fond of the tater tot in general, as it was invented here. The story goes that a pair of brothers by the name of F. Nephi and Golden Grigg purchased a potato processing plant close to the Idaho border in 1951 and named it Ore-Ida. Noticing that the byproduct of French fries was a lot of shredded potato waste, they combined the shredded potato with flour and seasoning. And so in 1953, the tater tot was born.
By 1956, tater tots were sold in stores. Today, they're on tables all over the United States and beyond. (You may say the Grigg brothers were ahead of their time on the repurposing trend.)
The original Portland totchos was composed of tots, chopped tomatoes, Jack and cheddar cheese, olives, jalapeños, sour cream, and salsa. But as imitations spread, so did the diversity of ingredients. I set out on my own totcho mission, to hunt down the best of what the Rip City has to offer.
The popular sandwich and cocktail spot Bunk Bar didn’t disappoint. Bunk’s version with mole, crema, avocado, and a bit of queso fresco was one of my favorites. At one of our hipper ramen havens, Boxer Ramen, the menu lists “Okonomiyaki tots” drizzled and decorated with traditional Japanese ingredients like bonito, tonkatsu sauce, nori, spicy mayo, and togarashi. And finally, I went to Blitz Ladd to check out their offering: cheddar and Jack cheese, roasted tomato salsa, and chipotle sour cream.
With such endless possibilities, I set out to make my own version of this local phenomenon. I knew I wanted mine south-of-the-border style and I liked the combination of a cheese sauce drizzle along with grated cheddar. I decided a cheese béchamel would be delicious and creamy (with none of the chemicals of the bright orange “nacho cheese” that we have all, at times, drunkenly gobbled).
For the meat component, I decided a chili verde with quick-cooking ground pork would be tasty with the cheese and potatoes, and I knew that serving them up hot was also mandatory for totcho perfection.
Being a Portland resident, I also decided to try my hand at “artisan” tots. Oddly, no one in this craftsman city has caught on to making their own tots—at least not at the spots I went to. While, at first, I was under the “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” mindset, after making my own from scratch, I was very impressed and surprised with the end result.
With the biggest game of American football right around the corner, why not try your hand at homemade totchos? It might change your relationship with the nacho forever! Make sure and invite some friends over (this makes ample servings) and bring the PDX totcho revolution to your town.
For the baked tater tots:
- 2 pounds (about 2 large) Russet potatoes
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 3 tablespoons peanut oil
For the chili verde and nacho béchamel:
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1/2 pound ground pork (substitute ground chicken if you prefer)
- 1 small can green chilies
- 1/2 medium onion, diced
- 3 tomatillos, husked and cut in half
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1/4 cup chicken stock
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 1 1/4 cups milk
- 1 1/2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese, divided
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 to 2 tablespoons pickled jalapeños, depending on heat preference
- 1 pinch salt
- 2 tablespoons sour cream, for garnish
- 1/2 tablespoon piment d'espelette, for garnish
- 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro, for garnish