Like any quintessential Minnesota child, Dan Docken and his seven siblings grew up eating lots and lots of tater tots. “We would have tater tots with our lunches and dinners,” the North St. Paul native recalls. And his mom, he says, “made the best tater tot hotdish.” Her recipe included both corn and green beans, “which is a little bit unique; a lot of people use one or the other,” cream of mushroom and cream of chicken soup, ground beef, and, of course, plenty of tots. Those fond memories of the crispy potato clusters are Docken’s inspiration for one of this year’s rookies on the Twin Cities food truck circuit, Tot Boss.
Docken, a big, burly guy who definitely fits the “Boss” nickname, is a relative newcomer to the food industry. He’s spent the past 27 years as a cabinet maker, but started taking an interest in cooking about 10 years ago. Friends and family asked him to cater events such as parties, anniversaries, and funerals. He always wanted to own a restaurant and discussed the idea with his wife, but didn’t think it was feasible given the current state of the economy. So he decided to go the food truck route and follow the advice of his food industry mentor: “He said, ‘Be good at one thing. Do one thing and be that guy,” Docken recalls. He knew he wanted that thing to be tater tots. Thus, Tot Boss was born.
Docken has been testing and tweaking potential dishes for the menu since last August. In the process, “my family has probably eaten more tater tots in the past six months than people have in a lifetime,” he says.
Several concoctions have made the cut, including tater tots topped with homemade chili and nacho-style tots. For the chili tots, Docken opted to create a thicker, Coney Island-style chili so it wouldn’t ruin the consistency of the tots. The chili has a nice kick that is mellowed out by a homemade cheddar cheese sauce and sour cream. The nacho tots come with homemade seasoned beef and nacho cheese, topped with lettuce, chopped tomato, and sour cream.
Docken is particularly excited about a poutine-style tater tot dish with cheese curds from the Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery in Ellsworth, WI, and beef gravy. The idea for the dish was given to Docken by a friend who recently visited Canada. He played around with the idea and it’s now on the permanent Tot Boss menu. The gravy has a nice richness that pairs well with the hot tots and the slightly melted curds.
In addition, look for burrito-style tater tots in a tortilla and bacon-wrapped tots (“I used to make those for parties,” he says, “and everybody loved those and wanted me to bring those back”), among other dishes. And yes, you can order the same tater tot hotdish his mom made for him and his siblings. Items range from $4.50 for a regular order of tots to $6 for the specialty dishes.
Docken plans to use Ore-Ida tater tots for his dishes, citing the time required to make tots from scratch, and the gluten-free nature of Ore-Ida tots. “That’s very important to me,” he says. He’ll also keep experimenting with new dishes, creating a specials menu where he can try out his creations on customers. One idea involves sweet potato tots with mini marshmallows. And Docken says he has plenty of other recipe ideas spinning in his head.
To start, Docken has a food truck license in the City of St. Paul and wants to take part in some of the food truck courts that set up around downtown St. Paul during the week. He also hopes to sell his tots at local car shows, ballparks, and community events, mainly in the east metro. He’s locked in for Market Fest in White Bear Lake on Thursdays throughout June and July, and hopes to hear from more festival organizers in the coming weeks. “I can’t wait to serve them great food,” he says. “People will love the food.”
But the big question remains, will Docken get sick of tater tots? “God, no!” he says. “The problem [will be] keeping me out of them.”