At 2 AM on Saturday, in the dead of winter, when all the bars in your college town have just closed down, there’s really only one proper way to cap off a night: find the closest establishment that serves hot, greasy drunk food and dig in. At SUNY Brockport, outside Rochester, NY, that means eating your way through what is affectionately known as the “Garbage Plate.”
I had my first Plate at a place called Jimmy Z’s. A friend went to order for me, and minutes later returned with a large styrofoam takeout container with an ungodly amount of food – two bunless cheeseburger patties slathered in a mysterious, oily meat sauce, topped with raw onions, ketchup and mustard, nestled lovingly on top of a pile of home fries and macaroni salad.
Being the kind of person who never let two different foods touch on one plate, I found the mess in front of me troubling, but was willing to try anything to keep the impending hangover at bay. I gingerly jabbed some home fries onto my fork, and before I knew it, my friend swiped the utensil out of my hand with a growl, shoveled a heap of everything from the container onto it and jammed it in front of my face.
“This is how you eat a Garbage Plate,” she said.
Explaining a Garbage Plate to someone from outside of the Rochester area is a challenge, because before you even get to the components and myriad number of combinations, people balk at the word “garbage” – it’s admittedly not exactly the most appetizingly named dish.
The Garbage Plate has a history dating back nearly 100 years to a little place called Nick Tahou Hots. The dish – originally referred to as “hots and potatoes” – started out as a “kitchen sink” sort of menu item, beloved by those coming off of the third shift or anyone looking for a filling meal on the cheap.
As per local lore, years after its creation, some local college kids were in Nick Tahou’s and one of them said, “I’ll have a plate with all the garbage on it,” and thus the Garbage Plate earned its name. According to What’s Cooking America, the dish rapidly became even more popular with the college crowd, and by 1992 the term “Garbage Plate” was trademarked by the restaurant.
While you can only get a true Garbage Plate at Nick Tahou’s, thanks to that trademark, there are homages to it all around the city and the outskirts. They almost all signal they’re of that same lineage using “plate” in whatever inventive name they choose to call their own version.
From the “5 Star Plate” at Jimmy Z’s in Brockport to “the Trash Plate” at Empire Hots in Webster, the core of the Plate is built upon a base of at least two starchy sides, topped with a protein, and finished with that oily, brownish red, seasoned meat sauce – which each restaurant makes a little differently.
At Nick Tahou’s, the traditional Garbage Plate consists of two sides (usually home fries and macaroni salad, with options of baked beans or French fries) and a protein – either two burgers or hot dogs (white hots or red hots – more local food that confuses anyone outside of western New York). But the menu has 10 options ranging from chicken to fish to fried ham to grilled cheese. And third-generation owner Alexander Tahou tells Great Big Story the restaurant has even gone as far as creating a sardine Garbage Plate at one point. Whichever version you choose, don’t forget the hot sauce.
For Rochester expats, it’s common to find yourself hunting down one of these establishments to get your fix of what is considered one of the most calorie-laden and fattiest foods in the state as soon as you enter the 585. A few years ago during a trip back up to Rochester with a friend, we stopped into Rohrbach Brewing Company’s brewpub. While my friend ordered the brewpub’s version of the plate, called the “Rohrbach plate,” I simply sat back and smirked, enjoying my sandwich. I sadistically watched as he tried to tackle a heaping platter. He ended the day chewing antacids, clutching his bulging gut and moaning. I learned a long time ago that when you tackle anything akin to a Garbage Plate, you never win, and while Rochesterarians may love them, they know their limits.