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Fun foods like tater tots are mounting a restaurant takeover.
Chicharrones. Deviled eggs. Tater tots. What do these three snacks have in common? Answer: They’re practically ubiquitous in Sacramento restaurants these days, appearing on menus all over the place. To wit:
THE INCREDIBLE, EDIBLE DEVILED EGG The Waterboy’s Rick Mahan takes credit for launching the deviled egg onto the culinary scene 16 years ago. “We were the first restaurant in Northern California to serve them,” says Mahan, who folds chopped anchovy and crispy bacon into sieved egg yolks before piping them into hard-boiled egg white halves and topping the eggs with a delicate little cucumber-and-shrimp salad. He used to prepare deviled eggs as a “little treat” just for his staff until one of his employees urged him to put them on the menu. Now, certain customers come in just for that dish.
Rick Mahan’s deviled eggs at The Waterboy include anchovies, bacon and shrimp.
Deviled eggs are handled less traditionally at midtown’s 58 Degrees & Holding Co. Chef FJ Villalobos undercooks the yolks so they’re custardy, flavors them with capers, shallots and paprika, cuts them into hardened egg whites, then spreads the mixture on toasted ciabbata bread. The whole megillah gets topped with house-cured bacon. “It’s got that deviled-egg flavor: mustardy, rich, salty, sweet, tangy,” he says. “A good deviled egg hits you all across the palate.”
Bret Bohlmann, the owner of Boulevard Bistro in Elk Grove, makes two upscale renditions of the dish. In one, smoked trout rillettes and garlic aioli flavor the mashed yolks. The other version uses traditional salade nicoise ingredients. Tuna and olives flavor the yolks, and a white Spanish anchovy serves as garnish. Bohlmann pipes the yolk mixture so that it sits nice and tall in the egg-white receptacle. “The best thing is that yolk fat,” he explains. “A deviled egg is just a vessel to get the egg yolk into your mouth.”
BET YOU CAN’T EAT JUST ONE Chicharrones—aka pork rinds—are like potato chips: crispy, salty and addictive, the perfect bar snack. Irie Gengler, the owner of Source Global Tapas in Granite Bay, doesn’t bother to make his own—he buys them from 4505 Meats in San Francisco. “I had them once in Napa, and they were the best chicharrones I’d ever tasted,” he says. “They melt in your mouth like cotton candy.” He makes no apologies for putting a packaged snack on his otherwise made-from-scratch tapas menu, comparing it to the imported jamon iberico also served at Source. “That’s what Source is all about: find the best product in the world.”
At The Red Rabbit, chef John Bays doesn’t make his pork chicharrones, either, although he doctors the premade pork thingies with smoked paprika, cayenne and cumin for extra kick and serves them with chili mignonette. He also serves a spring and summer salad topped with house-made chicken skin cracklings that he dubs “chicken chicharrones.”
Meanwhile, Kevin Ritchie of Shady Lady Saloon prepares pork rinds from scratch, a multiday process that he calls “a huge pain in the ass.” Pork skin is simmered in water, then dehydrated for up to 48 hours before going into the fryer, where it puffs up all chicharrone-like. The kitchen makes the pork rinds to order, so they’re still crackling when they hit the table. “It’s great bar food,” says Ritchie. “There’s subtlety, salt, crunch, fat. It just goes great with booze.”
ONE POTATO, TWO POTATO Tank House, Cafeteria 15L and Firestone Public House are just a few of the local places serving tater tots these days. These are not the basic puffs of spud you ate back in elementary school. Cafeteria 15L serves truffled tater tots. Tank House makes a PG-rated version called dirty tots, covered in cheese sauce and chopped pork butt. Firestone’s are topped nacho style with smoked pork, cheese and guac.
Other local tots are made with upscale add-ins. At Source, Gengler fashions his with Dungeness crab or shrimp and just a hint of potato. Shady Lady’s Ritchie makes his with confit duck. Like the chicharrones, they are a huge pain in the ass, he says. He cures duck legs in salt, then slow-cooks them in duck fat for three or four hours. Then he pulls the meat off the bone, chops it up and adds it to a mash of Kennebec potato. Each tot is made individually in a little mold, then fried to order and served with harissa and lemon aioli. “I’ll give $100 to anybody who can figure out how to do it faster,” says Ritchie. But he wouldn’t dream of taking his tater tots off the menu. “This is what being a chef is all about: taking something unremarkable and turning it into something special.”