Pots-N-Tots

The Pots-N-Tots food cart is located outside the Educational Sciences building on W. Johnson.

“The cafeteria has tater tots for lunch!”

Word would spread through middle school like wildfire once it was confirmed. In addition to Salisbury steak or chicken nuggets, we’d be having not mashed potatoes, not “twice-baked potatoes,” and not “tri-potatoes” (did anybody else’s cafeteria ever pull this one? It means thrice-baked, right?), but tater tots.

In reality, tater tots never seemed to live up to the ‘tweener hype for me. I think the lunch ladies would put them in the oven for the minimum possible cooking time (they were dealing in quantity, after all). The result was often an undercooked, even unpleasantly moist little nugget.

So here is the highest compliment I can give the new “Pots-n-Tots” food cart – it tastes like how you thought those cafeteria tater tots were going to taste. Only wilder.

Chef Rob Kratochwill started the cart in May outside the Educational Sciences building at 1025 W. Johnson St., a prime location for students heading to and from class. The cart is decorated with Kratochwill’s own playful tot-themed artwork, including a Marc Chagall figure, a portrait of cinema’s greatest tater tot lover, Napoleon Dynamite. The paint has just dried on his latest creation, the couple in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” With a big tater tot on the pitchfork, naturally.

The “Pots” in “Pots-n-Tots” refers to sandwiches featuring meat slow-cooked in a crock pot, including pot roast, shredded pork and shredded chicken. The first time I tried Pots-n-Tots, I got the BBQ pork sandwich ($5.50), which was moist and flavorful. However, let’s face it, the main reason I got it was because I felt guilty about having a dinner that was just tater tots.

Because the tater tots ($3.25 for a regular basket, $4.50 for a large) are the genius move of this cart. Kratochwill offers at least eight different kinds of tater tots, including “Volcanic Explosion,” BBQ, taco, parmesan garlic, ranch, onion dill, plain and a “flavor of the day.” Plus, he’s just debuted his first “dessert tot,” the “autumnal tot,” which is dusted with cinnamon and brown sugar and comes with a pumpkin cream cheese dipping sauce.

With the BBQ pork, I went for the parmesan garlic tots, and they are amazing. The exterior is crisp, the potato filling fluffy and pillowy, and the parmesan garlic flavor is scintillating. Crunchy and soft, spicy and earthy, it’s just the perfect gustatory balance in one little tot.

So, the second time I went back to Pots-N-Tots, I didn’t even bother with the sandwich, and just got an order of BBQ tots and an order of taco tots. The BBQ tots were good but a little underseasoned – I was expecting something that would really blow the doors off. It was the taco tots that were the real hit, fried to a deep golden brown and rolled liberally in spices, with just the right level of heat.

Kratochwill was also offering customers free samples of the autumnal tots, and the sweet mix of cinnamon and brown sugar made it taste like a tiny, adorable elephant ear.

Pots-N-Tots is open from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Kratochwill says that starting Sept. 15 he’ll start offering breakfast sandwiches for students hustling from one class to the next. And he’ll constantly keep rotating in new flavors as the inspiration strikes him.

“I go to bed, I wake up, I’ve got a new flavor,” he says.

Take that, lunch ladies.

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Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.