Traditional street foods sustained Sean Simpson while traveling around Asia on business. Back home in Talent, he lavished most of his love on handmade sausages. The two cuisines combine — to largely wholesome effect — at Tot, the Ashland restaurant Simpson opened last summer with chef Andrew Will.
"I think this is a lot better than a hot-dog cart," says Simpson, 41, of his initial business plan.
The brothers-in-law bill Tot — a play on the Vietnamese word for "good" — as Southeast Asian barbecue with a Vietnamese bent. After working in the kitchens of Ashland's Amuse and Standing Stone Brewing Co., Will developed Tot's recipes to evoke not just the flavors of street cuisine but the genre's "honest" and "affordable" reputation.
"We kind of lucked out with what we chose," says Will, 36. "We can always change and add stuff."
Keeping the menu small and streamlined allows Will to make almost everything from scratch and charge less than many other casual eateries in town. While there are plenty of meat dishes, Tot offers a handful of vegetarian items, plus gluten-free options and organic, locally produced ingredients when available.
Hardy greens, bok choy, leeks, squash, tomatoes and eggplants — about half of Tot's produce — came from Applegate's certified-organic Blue Fox Farm throughout the summer, says Will. In cold weather, the selection dwindled to spinach for salads and house-made dumplings, along with beets that Will pickled. But the new growing season likely will yield a new crop of dishes.
Soy-glazed Brussels sprouts served as a "snack" are one of the most popular wintertime items. Just as Will and Simpson suspected, a simple plate of vegetables entice the town's health-conscious diners.
"Ashland is a really great place for it," says Will.
Also serving a stint at a vegetarian and vegan restaurant in Seattle, Will characterizes those palates as the hardest to please because meat's not the obvious "focal point."
"It took a lot more thought," he says of creating balanced dishes without meat.
Yet the chef confesses that he doesn't "necessarily look at stuff that's healthy" for inspiration at Tot. A white-flour baguette, albeit locally baked, is the vehicle for his version of the quintessentially Vietnamese sandwich, "banh mi." Slathered with house-made mayonnaise and topped with house-made vegetable pickles, the sandwiches can be made vegetarian but primarily showcase brisket, pork and a meatball that's actually an incarnation of Simpson's sausage. Diners can double the meat or order the sandwich as a "pho dip" with a side of beef broth.
Pho, the iconic Vietnamese noodle soup, is available Fridays. Staple soups available all week include curry noodle, chicken-coconut dumpling, spinach dumpling in mushroom broth and Thailand's famed, hot-and-sour tom yum.
"Our soups are phenomenal," says Simpson.
Stocks made from scratch and simmered over days — particularly for pho — provide the flavor. Some are enriched with coconut milk, while others are chock-full of vegetables, such as boy choy, delicata squash and at least three types of mushrooms. Simpson and Will say they believe customers notice the extra care taken to prepare Tot's food compared with other Asian establishments' fare.
"They buy prepared sauces, or they buy prepared stocks," says Will. "There's a lot of shortcuts that I could take."
Will's from-scratch dipping sauces — peanut, tamarind barbecue and sweet-and-savory chili — coconut dressing and sesame-ginger vinaigrette notably contain no gluten. While wheat dough is used for dumplings, Tot offers an alternative in the form of rice noodles. Barbecued meats come with rice, and the namesake tater tots, which contain rice and cornstarch, are gluten-free.
With tots the least expensive item at $3, the menu's top-end price is $13 for barbecue brisket. Locally raised meats, including rabbit encased in dumplings, have shown up in Tot's specials, but organic animal proteins are almost prohibitively expensive for a restaurant aiming at attractive prices, say Simpson and Will. Meanwhile, many restaurateurs' definition of wholesome meats has become a bit murky.
"Just about everybody claims all-natural now," says Will.
Purchasing primarily beef raised on Oregon ranches, Tot chooses it grain-finished, which has enough fat to carry through dry-rubbing and slow-roasting, says Will. Otherwise, Will describes Tot's menu as "low-fat," as well as "low-dairy."
"The menu I really put in his hands," says Simpson.
Tot's ambiance, however, was pure collaboration. The do-it-yourself duo created an industrial-chic decor by salvaging pallets for paneling, a 100-year-old beam from a Chicago warehouse for the bar, chairs from a garage sale and light fixtures original to the building.
Even the restaurant logo, a stylized elephant, speaks to simplicity that leaves a big impression.