The Best Worst Thing You'll Ever Eat
This is my love letter to Rochester, NY's signature dish: the Garbage Plate. I interviewed the quirky third-generation owner and delved into the meat-heavy melting pot of carbs, fat, and salt that has become a late-night ritual for locals and a rite of passage for new college students.
Health-conscious foodies, beware: now is your chance to look away.
Once the booming city home to big-name companies like Xerox, Bausch + Lomb, and the film-giant Kodak, Rochester has had its fair share of hardships. But there’s one thing the people of Rochester have been counting on for almost 100 years: the Garbage Plate.
What poutine is to Montreal and the cheesesteak is to Philly, the Garbage Plate is to Rochester. And Nick Tahou Hots, a modest restaurant housed in an old brick railroad station on West Main Street, is its birthplace.
A ‘Plate,’ as the locals call it, isn’t for the faint of heart. It probably isn’t that great for your heart either, come to think of it, but there’s nothing better after a night out on the town to help counteract all those Genny Creams. (If you’ve never heard of a Genesee Cream Ale, that’s a Rochester love story for another time.)
Put a dent in your hangover and try this on for size.
Perched on a paper plate, or a Styrofoam takeout container if you’re dining on-the-go, is the dish’s support system: piping hot home fries or french fries alongside macaroni salad. Two cheeseburgers are next, with just the slightest ribbon of pink in the center, the cheese still bubbling on top. To top it all off, the holy trinity: mustard, onions, and a meat sauce (known simply as “hot sauce” by Rochesterians).
Because what goes better with meat than… more meat?
“It can be made any way your heart delights,” says Alex Tahou, third generation owner of Nick Tahou’s. Switching out the macaroni salad for baked beans, or the cheeseburgers for chicken fingers, are two of the more common substitutions. The toppings vary from customer to customer, though the original was beans, potatoes, and hot dogs. “That’s been on the board since the 1918’s,” Tahou says.
While most people opt for the fries and macaroni salad, Tahou says the “die-hards” still eat the beans. He pronounces ‘die’ like a true Rochester native, an emphasis on the eye sound and hard r’s, speaking through his nose like he’s recovering from a cold.
Although there are many copycat versions scattered throughout the city, Nick Tahou’s is the only place to get a real Garbage Plate.
Seriously. Because Tahou registered the term ‘Garbage Plate’ as a trademark in 1991, they’re the only place that can legally call it that. But much like bandages are ‘Band-Aids,’ and tissues are ‘Kleenex,’ ‘Garbage Plate’ has become part of the lexicon of Rochester.
Though the dish has existed since the early days of the restaurant, the term wasn’t coined until the 1980s when college students would ask for “a plate with all that garbage one it.” The name stuck. Call Tahou and he’ll give you an earful about his disdain for the moniker. “My father used to hate the term,” Tahou says. “’This is food,’ he’d say. ‘Garbage Plate doesn’t sound appetizing’.”
Listen, I’m not going to try to convince you that the name isn’t revolting. But the first time you take a bite of the melting pot teetering on your plastic fork (which turns into more of a shovel once you really start going), any initial hesitations will be far from your mind.
The hot sauce careens its way through the caverns of the dish, rendering your french fries more fork food than finger food. Like the end of an ice cream cone, the melted ice cream nestled in the crevices of the checkered bottom, the last bite of a Garbage Plate is worth the time it took to get there. And weighing in at about three pounds, it might take you a while.
But no rush. There’s no challenge here. A Garbage Plate isn’t a gimmick or a publicity stunt. There are even regulars who come in and eat a Plate every day. (Yes, you read that correctly.) That’s how the Garbage Plate (at first called ‘Hots and Po-tats,’ for hot dogs and potatoes) originated—for the blue-collar worker who would eat one hearty meal a day. “We’d give ‘em a lot of food for just a little bitta money,” Tahou says.
Digging into your first Garbage Plate is a rite of passage for many new college students and out-of-towners alike. One bite of a Garbage Plate and you’ll understand Rochester. There’s history in those layers, and intense regional pride. My grandmother, who lived her entire life in Rochester, always said it was the best city in the world. I think many Rochesterians would agree. Like Rochester, the Garbage Plate is straightforward, with no tolerance for bullshit. It’s not trying to put on airs. That’s why people love it.
Rochesterians are proud, but not exclusive. Simply put, once you eat a Plate, you’re a local. Just be sure to save some time for a nap once you’re finished. You’ll need it.