The Great Manhattan Tater Tot Crawl

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[Photographs: Rabi Abonour, unless otherwise noted]

Sometimes in the name of journalism you do crazy things, like spend a whole afternoon eating Manhattan's most over the top tater tot dishes. It's no easy task, but someone has to do it, because this city is full of Buffalo tots, tot-nachos, and pizza tots, some tot-tastic and others tot-tastrophes. Follow along on our tour to see which is which.

Chili Cheese Tots at Crif Dogs ($3.50)

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Crif Dogs, known for its hangover worthy hot dogs, puts its greasy magic to work with chili cheese tater tots. Nestled in a tin foil cradle, Crif Dogs' tater tots are your average, frozen tots, but a lengthy dip in the deep fryer gives them the structural integrity to hold up to the cheese and chili and maintain the tot's desired crunchy exterior.

Rather than smothering them until they're unrecognizable, Crif Dogs tops the tots with enough chili and cheese to coat each bite without drowning the potato flavor. The chili is mild, slightly sweet and tomato-y and the cheese sauce is, well, yellow. If you like spice, ask for jalapenos. Rather than slicing the pepper, it comes finely chopped, which makes for easier eating.

Buffalo Tots at the Burger Bistro ($8.25)

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Potato meets Buffalo at The Burger Bistro on the Upper East Side. Classic Buffalo sauce offers mild tang, crumbled blue cheese adds creamy funk, and chopped raw celery gives a necessary added crunch. The bold flavor profile of Buffalo wings translates well to otherwise bland tots, although their crisp exterior is sacrificed. A heads up: this is a sit-down restaurant with no bar, so prepare yourself for some strange looks if you only order the tot appetizer.

Totchos at West 3rd Commons ($9)

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A disclaimer should be added to West 3rd Common's menu: only eat these tots if you've had a lot to drink first. The "Totchos" are topped with cheese sauce, "charred" tomato salsa, chorizo, pickled jalapeno, and crème fraîche. A noble attempt to use housemade toppings is trumped by the dish's chewy chorizo, watery cheese, and overall sloppy execution. Instead of the tots, you're better off ordering the "Loaded Potato Bites"—the Totcho's more sober cousin of breaded, deep-fried baked potato pieces served with ranch dressing.

Fancypants Tots at P.J. Clarke's ($8.85)

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If you're not a frozen tater tot purist (yes, we're making that a thing), P.J. Clarke's might be for you. Housemade tots are a totally different animal than their frozen counterpart, something between a hash brown and potato croquette. P.J. Clarke's combine finely shredded potato and Parmesan in the body of the tot. They're barely greasy, lightly dusted with Parmesan, and served in a baby cast-iron skillet, but they're so far removed from go-to frozen tots that it's hard to make a direct comparison.

Pizza Tots at American Retro ($7)

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These guys are serious about pub grub. With an entire section of the menu dedicated to tots (appropriately named "Tots! Tots! Tots!"), The American Retro Bar & Grill has five tater tot dishes in addition to a classic "Basket'o tots." Although "Sarah's Disco Tots" with brown gravy and melted cheese were tempting, we decided on Pizza Tots. Resembling mozzarella sticks gone rogue, the tots come haphazardly piled on a plate, loaded with sweet marinara and plenty of stretchy mozzarella. Though they're mouth-coatingly greasy and don't come to more than the sum of their parts, they deliver plenty of crispy texture.

The Wof Attack at Wolfnights ($5.98)

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Photograph: Robyn Lee]

The last stop on our tour is one we've visited before: the Wolf Attack from Wolfnights on the Lower East Side. This 20-ounce monster of tater tots comes topped with grilled onions, meat sauce, American cheese, and thick slices of raw jalapenos. Soft tots disintegrate beneath the toppings into a melty, oily blob for late-night partyers to devour.

[Animation: Robyn Lee]

About the author: Marissa Sertich Velie is an editorial intern at Serious Eats and a New York based pastry chef. She documents her adventures of baking and eating her way through the nutty underbelly of the American pie on her blog. She is currently earning her Master's degree in Food Studies at NYU.

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