That’s my favorite line from Superman II. When he goes back to the greasy spoon diner in who knows where, in a snowy clime not far from his Fortress of Solitude, to confront Rocky (That’s the big jerk who gives the Son of Kal-El his first bloody lip, and gets thrown into a pinball machine for his insolence.) But where can you eat garbage? Rochester, that’s where. At Nick Tahou’s, home of the original garbage plate.
I was reminded of this American icon by my friend Kimbo Kinte the art weirdo, who makes delightful critters on etsy. (Go buy them, before they attack.) I’d heard of it long before Food TV and the Travel Channel began glamorizing every grease spot on the highway, and never figured I’d be up this way. But a garbage plate is worth going out of your way for. It’s unique, and something I will be recreating over and over, as it is a plate of beauty.
You begin with macaroni salad. Well, first you begin by parking behind this industrial building, in a scary and mostly abandoned part of Rochester by an overpass. But luckily, it’s only a minute off the highway, so you can zip in, eat and escape before they getcha. Inside, a grizzled old man under a cook’s cap takes your order with nonchalance bordering on disdain, and the hash-slinging grill masters do their work with practiced speed.
You can get a lot of things on your garbage plate. Two red hots, or hot dogs, sliced in half and grilled; two cheeseburgers, eggs, fried ham, chicken tenders, Italian sausage, fried haddock, grilled cheese or even a veggie burger. They also have a white hot, I’d guess it’s a bratwurst. We opted for the classics- red hots and cheeseburgers, all the way. You begin with macaroni salad and perfectly cooked home fries- or you can opt for baked beans and french fries- and top it with your choice of meats. Then it gets smothered with chopped onions, spicy mustard, and Nick’s hot sauce, which is a lot like a sweet hot dog chili sauce with meat. I slapped some Frank’s Red Hot sauce on there too.
The red hots were snappy red sausages, and the cheeseburgers were small patties, both with lots of flavor. The macaroni is light and mild, not dripping with mayo, and the home fries, well, they’re perfect. Crisp outside and tender inside, with the golden color that tells you Mr. Nick changes the fry oil often. In a time when every bite must explode with bacon fat and truffle oil, it was refreshing to taste the delicate simplicity of the macaroni salad and the crispy potatoes as they soaked up the sauce from the meat and toppings. On the side, you get fresh-baked bread and butter.
It’s been great drunk food for generations. They don’t say when the garbage plate was first concocted, but Nick’s has been serving Rochester since 1918! They remind me of my local favorite, much maligned by snobby foodies who come expecting Kobe beef dogs fried in duck fat. No, it’s just Greek sauce smothered on top of burgers or sausages, bedded atop macaroni salad and taters. And that’s good. It’s become a Rochester tradition, with charity races to the restaurant and back to campus, and for 6 to 8 bucks depending on your meat, it’s a very filling bargain these days. Perfect college food. And since Garbage Plate is trademarked, you can only get one in Rochester.
A clean grill is a happy grill. I slung hash for a year or two at the ITT Cafeteria before they outsourced, and I appreciate good grill food. And Nick’s been serving it up for nearly a century. The man passed away in ’97, and some take a garbage plate to his grave on his birthday (Jan. 6th) to honor him. And he deserves the honor, for running a genuine classic greasy spoon for nearly 80 years. His family carries on the tradition, and I hope to visit for their centennial. Eating garbage is an American tradition; and at Nick Tahou’s, it tastes delicious.