Heartland Cafe's home page features a photograph of freshly plucked hops, green as Easter basket cellophane, and a mission statement touting the restaurant's commitment to serving scratch-made food. Heartland customers won't confront any bottled salad dressings or packaged beer mustard, the site pledges.
But the quirky West Seattle restaurant is the rare eatery in which local diners not only tolerate processed food: They demand it. Heartland's kitchen, working in perpetual Midwestern homage mode, has built its reputation largely on Tater Tots.
Tater Tots premiered at the 1954 National Potato Convention in Miami Beach, where Ore-Ida Food's Neef Grigg arranged to have his latest invention delivered to conference goers' breakfast tables. The caper ended magnificently for Ore-Ida, which had previously sold its potato scraps for cattle feed: "They were gobbled up faster than a dead cat could wag its tail," Grigg wrote. According to a tater tot history compiled by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's John Kessler, Ore-Ida sent an executive on the road with Tater Tot samples and a ukulele to play while people savored them.
Although Tater Tots originated in the Pacific Northwest, they resonated in the frugal, potato-fond states of the Upper Great Lakes. Tater Tots were quickly incorporated into the creamy casseroles that Minnesotans call hot dish.
There is a casserole on the menu at Heartland. But the winning exposition of the snack is the fully loaded tots, a kind of indulgent baked potato in a horizontal configuration. Or perhaps the dish is more akin to very starchy nachos. Here the crisped tater cylinders are blanketed by cheddar cheese, bacon bits and green onions. A scoop of sour cream sits atop the salty jumble. Nobody who's ordered it has ever wished they'd asked for fresh vegetables instead.