The Buffalo wing. The Chicago Dog. The Philly Cheesesteak.
We love regional food. Generally born out of necessity — or dreamed up after a few beers — local food is what gives a city its, forgive the pun, flavor. If you ask us, some of the best food in America is thrown onto plates at diners at four in the morning. Is it always the healthiest option? Not exactly, but man, is it good.
In Rochester, you’ll find a curious menu item that certainly fits the bill. Allow us to introduce you to The Garbage Plate, the pride and joy of locals for over a hundred years. As unappetizing as the name may sound, this dish is an all-time favorite for natives and tourists alike and has a history as American as apple pie.
Keep reading to understand the background of this beloved meal and how it became a staple in restaurants all around Rochester.
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Allow us to be perfectly clear. A Garbage Plate is not, in fact, garbage. It’s garbage in the way that your mother used to sigh when you’d come back from a carnival covered in ketchup and cotton candy stains. “Look at you. You’ve just been eating garbage.”
That is to say, it’s garbage in so far as garbage tastes really, really good.
The Garbage Plate is a delectable combination of foods that typically appear as a side on a picnic or barbecue plate. Everyone does it differently, but the base is generally built up of french fries, home fries, baked beans, and macaroni salad. It’s then topped with a “hot sauce” (spicy meat sauce) and a meat of your choice; cheeseburger, hamburger, Italian sausages, steak, chicken, white or red hots — two sausages local to Rochester. Add a couple of sauteed onions and mustard, and you’re in business.
All of these glorious hot foods mix and melt into each other, resulting in a mouthwatering bite that, yes, would probably make your mother shake her head. But the sogginess and artery-clogging is the point and for that, we have to salute the madmen in the kitchens in Rochester.
Speaking of, let’s meet the madmen. Many diners, food stands, and restaurants in Rochester offer the Garbage Plate, but there’s no confusion over who originated the dish. It’s Nick Tahou Hots.
Nick Tahou Hots was originally called West Main Texas Hots, and it was founded in 1918. “Hots” referred to the two sausages we mentioned above, a staple in western New York cuisine. There are white hots and red hots, the colors describing the shade of the sausages, not the taste. These sausages are as old as Rochester, brought to the area by German immigrants who helped build the city. Nick’s has been using Zweigle's sausages for as long as they’ve been serving plates. Zweigle's was founded in 1880.
Back in those days, the plates weren’t so elaborate. Original owner and Greek immigrant Alexander Tahou would serve meat and a side of potatoes. Consider Great Depression-era Rochester — that was certainly enough to stave off hunger and keep the wallet happy. Plates cost just a few cents back then.
Things started to change in the 1940s when Alexander’s son Nick took over the family business and got a little more exploratory in his plate-making. Legend has it that the Garbage Plate officially took form when, in the 80s, college students came into the restaurant and asked for “that plate with all the garbage on it.” And so, the Garbage Plate was born.
Nick Tahou trademarked the name in 1992, and his restaurant is now plastered in references to it. From the signs on the wall to the sides of the styrofoam plates they serve them on, the Garbage Plate is the star of the spot.
The trademark has also led to some amusing names from other nearby establishments which, in respect to Nick’s ownership, sell similar meals called “junkyard dog plates,” “compost plates,” (vegetarian variations) or simply just “hots and potatoes.”
Few American cities can trace a singular dish’s history back so precisely, and few others can say that the originators of the dish are still in business. That’s part of what makes Rochester’s Garbage Plate so special. It’s incredible to sit there, look around, and consider that the heap of food in front of you looks pretty similar to what was served a century ago.
Say the words “Garbage Plate” to anyone from Rochester and they’ll get it immediately. The dish is a staple and regular indulgence for all those who can stomach the grease. Since introducing the plate, Nick’s has become an institution, serving up the meal to college students, late-night shift workers, and the seriously hungry.
The spot is now open only during the day after it got a little bit of a reputation for rowdy and seedy dealings late at night, but that hasn’t stopped the community from supporting it.
The Rochester Red Wings, the minor league baseball team in town, hosted a Garbage Plate night to celebrate the meal’s 100th anniversary, temporarily renaming the franchise the Rochester Plates. The fraternity brothers of the University of Rochester’s Sigma Phi Epsilon chapter host a charity run every year that starts on campus and ends at the legendary restaurant. The run benefits the Mount Hope Family Center.
It’s a three-person event with the first team member leaving campus and running the 2.2-mile course to Nick’s, where the second team member eats a Garbage Plate as fast as possible. The third team member then runs back to campus. Brave souls who want to achieve glory attempt an Iron Man version of the run, doing the entire race — Garbage Plate and all — on their own. You try to run 2.2 miles after downing hamburger meat and french fries, and tell me how that goes.
The point is, the Garbage Plate from Nick Tahou’s Hots is an institution, and the community will always show up for its beloved dish. The Garbage Plate is as Rochester as Wegman’s and Genesee Beer. It’s safe to bet it’s not going anywhere.
If you’ve made it through this post without drumming up a serious appetite for a plate of garbage, we commend you. It was tough to write it without drooling. If you get a chance to spend some time in Rochester, you can’t go home without ordering a Garbage Plate from Nick Tahou’s. Nick’s nephew Steve now runs the place and is serving up the same delicious slop as his ancestors.
Whether you’re a Rochester local who just wants to show some love for the plate or a native who’s moved away from the land of Garbage Plates, we think you’ll love our design, inspired by the delicacy. Available in both men’s and women’s t-shirts and tanks, it features an illustration of the glorious Garbage Plate and comes in nine colors. Check it out and get ready for questions like, “Woah, that shirt looks really comfortable. Is it?” and “What in the hell is that?”