Tater tots are potato sausages without a casing. I came to this realization while at EastSide Tavern in Austin. An appetizer called simply Brisket + Cheddar Tater Tots on the menu had just arrived. Fully expecting a paper tray brimming with previously frozen tots topped with shredded cheddar and chopped brisket, I was surprised by the presentation. A pyramid of ten finger-length tater tots were deeply browned and neatly stacked under a drizzle of aioli and a garnish of green onions. Where was the promised brisket and cheese?
Co-owner Matt Carter told me they’d routinely get complaints about the dish when they first opened. Cade Mercer, EastSide’s former pitmaster who recently departed to run a ramen truck in Waco, said, “I wanted people to be caught off-guard by it.” It worked. Until I picked one up, I didn’t notice the bits of chopped brisket within the tots. Shredded cheddar held it all together. These tots weren’t to be topped but to be stuffed. Think of them like jalapeño cheese sausages, with the meat-to-vegetable ratio reversed. The crisp exterior surface was made up of crisp potato mottled with browned cheese. Pockets of brisket bits revealed themselves with every bite.
My bafflement quickly turned to excitement—just think of the possibilities of flavor combinations. Carter said he’d tried bacon and cheese. The combination worked well, but brisket and cheddar seemed more appropriate for a barbecue joint. Mercer, who Carter credits with the tot innovation, tried pulled pork, but it “was kinda lost in the potatoes,” he told me. What about jalapeños, or pickles and onions? Maybe Swiss and brisket (Swisket tots?) together. The combinations are as endless as, well, sausage varieties.
I wasn’t the first to think of tater tots as potato sausage. When EastSide Tavern first began making the house specialty tots, it mixed ground and blanched potatoes, potato starch, chopped brisket, and shredded cheddar. The filling was then stuffed into a couple sections of properly sized PVC pipe, then pushed through the other end of the pipe. The process was slow and labor-intensive, so they treated the mixture more like an actual sausage. EastSide Tavern purchased a sausage stuffer and extruded the mixture into bite-sized segments that could go into the fryer. That streamlined the process to where the restaurant could meet the demand.
The brisket cheddar tots are now one of the most popular dishes on the menu, but EastSide Tavern was impressive for more than just the unique appetizer. Mercer had just moved on before my visit, and the new pitmaster hadn’t yet come on. Still, the kitchen staff was producing excellent smoked chicken wings and great slices of fatty brisket from a pair of wood-fired smokers in the parking lot. I’ll be back to try the rest of the menu and give them a full review, but for now, get there to try some of the most interesting and satisfying barbecue sausages you’ll find, even if they’re made from potatoes.
1510 E Cesar Chavez St.