The Rochester Garbage Plate Is A Delicious Hot Mess

There's a reason why New York is heralded as a dream destination for foodies everywhere. From pastrami sandwiches to pani puri, you can find it all within the Empire State — and the bustling food scene stretches far beyond its most famous city's limits. Buffalo wings, chicken riggies, and tomato pie are just a few signature specials found north of Manhattan, but there's one truly unique dish that's synonymous with Western New York: The garbage plate. Its name may not be quite as sweet-sounding as ambrosia, but that's just part of the charm for this Rochester, NY-based recipe. The tempting assortment of picnic-perfect foods, from macaroni salad to juicy cheeseburgers, is steeped in history, tracing its origins back to the turn of the 20th century.

It's a tale Rochester native Alex Tahou knows well. After all, his family is responsible for putting the celebrated dish on the map. His grandfather, Alexander Tahou, invented what would become the garbage plate over 100 years ago. Just blocks away from its original location, the younger Tahou still serves up his grandfather's signature recipes to this day at 320 W Main St in downtown Rochester. 

Tasting Table caught up with the third-generation restauranteur at Nick Tahou Hots, home of the original garbage plate, to hear more about the story behind Rochester's most iconic meal.

The history of Nick Tahou Hots

During our visit, Alex Tahou set the record straight on the downtown eatery his grandfather founded in 1918. "It was originally called West Maine Texas Hots," he says of the restaurant's name, which eventually evolved into Nick Tahou's Texas Hots, and by the late '70s, Nick Tahou Hots Incorporated. 

In 1968, the restaurant moved from 296 to 320 W Main St. The current building still bears many of its antique fixtures, like wood paneling from 1851. "If you pulled this ceiling out, you'd still see some old chandeliers hanging in there from the railroad days," Tahou says. Underneath it, a Rockwellian lunch counter with leather barstools overlooks the grill, though most patrons flock to booths for window watching.

It's a cold weeknight in Rochester when we stop by the historic haunt, with a mix of locals and out-of-towners steadily trickling in for suppertime. Over time, customers have come and gone, though Tahou fondly remembers each one of his regulars. "There was a guy they called Bookman. When I was young, I thought he was a bookie. I found out later that they called him Bookman because he had a bunch of books in his car," Tahou tells Tasting Table of one memorable diner. "Whenever time any of these guys had an argument about something, he'd go and find a book that would show that what he had said was right." The restaurateur says, "With a normal restaurant, you don't find out this about customers. It's a home. It's a family."

What goes into a Rochester garbage plate?

According to Alex Tahou, what we now know as the garbage plate began out of necessity. For hungry denizens of downtown Rochester, NY, the hearty meal served as a quick and affordable way to fuel up between shifts. However, the earliest iteration of the dish came with a very different name. "The original plate was hot dogs called hots and potatoes. It was hot dogs, home fries, cold beans — not hot — and two pieces of Italian bread and butter," Tahou tells Tasting Table. "It's still the first plate on our menu, but cheeseburger plates have taken over now it being the most popular plate."

That said, patrons of Nick Tahou Hots can customize their garbage plate with a variety of different stand-ins. A typical order begins with a generous serving of creamy macaroni salad heaped onto a plate, followed by baked beans and crinkle-cut fries, or home-fried potatoes. From there, diners take their pick from a list of mains, with everything from grilled cheese sandwiches to Italian sausages on offer. Of course, it wouldn't be complete without a layer of hot sauce (or meat sauce, to some Rochesterians) to tie it all together. The final result is a mouthwatering mountain of a platter, served alongside thick-cut slices of fluffy Italian bread for dipping purposes.

Nick Tahou Hots' signature sauce recipe came from a family friend

The finishing touch on each garbage plate, its savory hot sauce, came by way of a family friend. Though Alex Tahou can't share the recipe in full, he's happy to explain the story behind the chili-like creation. "A lot of people have different versions of where the sauce came from," Tahou says. "The actual place that it came from was a Mexican man that my grandfather befriended years ago." Explaining that the man had been struggling financially, Tahou adds that his grandfather helped him out by offering him a job and housing. "When he finally got back on his feet, the only thing he could give my grandfather was this family recipe that he had for this sauce."

The umami-tinged topping is the perfect complement to the garbage plate's ingredients, and adding a dollop of spicy mustard brings out its salty, sweet undertones. In the past, some have claimed to know the secrets behind the restaurant's legendary recipe, but Tahou says that's just rubbish. "My father gave me the recipe approximately four days before he passed away. So, to these people that are saying he gave them the recipe — there's no way," he tells Tasting Table.

How the Rochester garbage plate got its name

Now, we know the beloved menu item started off as hots and potatoes — so how did it end up with a name like garbage plate? As it turns out, the storied special made the switch sometime around the 1970s or '80s, with Alex Tahou there to see it happen. According to him, its modern-day moniker came from Rochester college students who noticed their fellow late-night diners ordering the restaurant's signature recipe. "Guys would come in after drinking, and they'd see somebody that had a plate, have no idea what it was, and just say, 'Give me a plate with all that garbage on it,'" Tahou tells Tasting Table. The students referred to their newfound favorite food as a "garbage plate," and the name gradually started to stick.

From there, word quickly spread across nearby college campuses, bringing in scores of new customers to Nick Tahou Hots — further helped out by the fact that the restaurant was open 24/7 at this point. Soon, it became known as the official birthplace of Rochester's most famous dish. "We're trademarked, and we're still the only 'garbage plate,'" says Tahou. 

The trick to ordering a true garbage plate

It can be tough to take your pick from an unfamiliar menu, but Alex Tahou explains that the garbage plate ordering process is far from complicated. In order to fully enjoy this dish, it's essential to ask for all the fixings. And yes, the signature meat sauce is a must. If you order your meal plain, then it isn't really a garbage plate — at least, not according to Tahou. 

"It's not what all the hullabaloo is all about. That cheeseburger plate and hot dog plate are the ones that really make it," the restauranteur tells Tasting Table. When asked to nominate his favorite type of garbage plate, Tahou wastes no time in answering. "I think the cheeseburger plate's the best," he says. "The hamburgers with cheese, the home fries, the macaroni salad, even the beans, warm or cold, they're good. And I think ... that combination just flows."

One can't help but agree with Tahou's assessment after trying a classic cheeseburger plate at the restaurant's robin egg blue counter. Somehow, the indulgent platter is even better than it looks, its classic cookout flavors melding together perfectly. Carefully balancing each ingredient, says Tahou, is the key to fixing a good garbage plate. "When you use macaroni salad made with vinegar, and then you put our hot sauce on it, that combination together doesn't really work. You get too many opposing flavors instead of flavors that go together," he tells us.

Over the years, some ingredients have fallen out of fashion

"The plates are basically your choice of the protein, your choice of the sides, your choice of the toppings," Alex Tahou tells Tasting Table. Hamburgers and hot dogs have remained popular proteins in garbage plates for decades, but there are some mains that didn't quite make the cut — like tuna fish. "Hamburgers were called Hamburg steak. In later years, it became cheeseburgers and Italian sausages," Tahou adds of the ebb and flow of staple dishes. "And one time, we did sardine sandwiches for years. Cold sardine sandwiches." 

It's hard to imagine exactly how a sardine sandwich might taste in garbage plate form, though the concept certainly piques one's interest. Sardines aside, there's still plenty of variation at Nick Tahou Hots. Even vegetarians can enjoy a garbage plate these days, with plant-based burgers joining the menu. Other options include grilled cheese sandwiches, haddock, and crisp chicken tenders. 

Of course, the city's hot dogs of choice haven't changed a bit. "There's only one company in Rochester now that really makes them, and if you don't buy them from that company, people don't like it," says Tahou. The red and white frankfurters come from Zweigle's, another Rochester food business founded over a century ago. On Nick Tahou Hots' menu, "Texas" refers to Zweigle's red hot dogs, a snappy sausage made from beef and pork; the whites are comprised of similar ingredients but are uncured and contain veal.

The success of the dish inspires many imitators

If you visit Rochester, NY, you'll likely observe some confusing overlap on restaurant menus throughout the city. Nick Tahou Hots holds the trademark to the garbage plate name, but dozens of local spots offer similarly constructed plates. Garbage plate replicas have even sprung up outside of Western New York, in pubs and restaurants from Albany to Brooklyn. That being said, Alex Tahou doesn't mind the spate of imitators. "We wouldn't be out there and go say, 'Well, nobody should sell hamburgers because we sell hamburgers,'" he tells Tasting Table. According to the restauranteur, what sets Nick Tahou Hots apart is its historical significance — as well as its loyal customer base.

"I think that the biggest thing is that we've been here since 1918, so a lot of .... people's generations were just coming here one family after another family," he says, adding, "There's a big following of people that over the 105 years started here, and their families continue to come here." Apart from that, Tahou is committed to upholding the family's recipes just as he remembers them. He doesn't disparage others' interpretations of the classic dish, but he seeks to provide the same garbage plate his longtime visitors know and love. "Just having consistent quality products, not jumping around and buying wherever you can buy so that today it tastes like this, tomorrow it tastes like something else," Tahou tells us of maintaining this goal.

In spite of setbacks, Nick Tahou Hots is still going strong

Few restaurants escaped the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic unscathed, and Alex Tahou doesn't mince words on how indoor dining restrictions affected Nick Tahou Hots. "It's gone downhill since COVID," he tells Tasting Table, explaining, "We lost probably 200 people a day when they closed everything because of COVID."

 The changing cityscape and dwindling activity in the once-busy area add another layer of uncertainty for the landmark eatery. "People don't work downtown. They don't come to eat downtown," he says. "... Although Rochester's not that large of a city, people from the suburbs are afraid to come downtown." Another upset for Nick Tahou Hots came when a social media personality incorrectly claimed the restaurant had closed during a 2021 "Today" show appearance — though the individual later apologized and corrected their gaffe.

Perhaps owing to the tenacity of his father and grandfather, Tahou doesn't let these events affect his strong work ethic. He still runs a tight ship at Nick Tahou Hots, though he admits it isn't always easy. "I'm 71 years old now," he tells Tasting Table, adding, "The rest of my years aren't going to be as long as they were. So I try to enjoy it." On the evening of our visit, it's a two-man crew at the restaurant, with Tahou busily answering phones, taking orders, and chatting with his customers. 

Alex Tahou's tips for making garbage plates at home

Thinking of trying the garbage plate, but can't make it out to Nick Tahou Hots? It's safe to say you may not be able to replicate the restaurant's signature meat sauce, but with a little help from Alex Tahou, you can pay homage to this Rochester recipe at home. First and foremost, it's best to start with a scoop of sodium-free macaroni salad. "There's no salt [in our macaroni salad]. So, if you have a salt-free diet, you can eat it. If you want to add any to it, you can," says Tahou, adding, "The recipe is very easy. For years, it's been a quality elbow macaroni, celery, carrots, and Hellmann's heavy mayonnaise." 

If you're a garbage plate purist, there are two steps you can take to emulate early versions of the dish. "Until the '50s, there weren't even hamburgers sold in this joint. And when they sold them, they made the hamburgers rectangular because they wanted to use the same bun, not have two different kinds of buns," says Tahou. After you've shaped these burger patties, try making your own french fries or home fries on the side from scratch. Otherwise, there's no harm in using frozen potatoes in a pinch. 

As for the meat sauce, you'll have to get a little creative. We can't say for sure what goes into Tahou's family recipe, so we suggest experimenting with a hot dog chili recipe of your choice and adjusting to taste.

What's next for Nick Tahou Hots?

If you spend a little time at Nick Tahou Hots, you'll see that Alex Tahou isn't the type to sit still. When he's not hard at work inside the family business, the proprietor can be found serving up plates at local events. "We've been doing the Rochester Lilac Festival for 25 years," he tells Tasting Table. The festival, which takes place each May in Rochester's Highland Park, is a three-weekend long showcase of over 500 lilac species in bloom. In the past, Tahou's also dabbled with outdoor dining — even investing in a luxe mobile restaurant during the earlier days of the COVID-19 pandemic, a photo of which hangs prominently on Tahou's dining room wall.

Given its illustrious history, it's natural to wonder what's next for this downtown Rochester institution. It's Tahou's hope that he can find someone willing and able to carry on the garbage plate's legacy when he's ready to step down. "We're trying to license somebody to sell the product so it could continue to exist. ... It'd have to be a little bit of a joint effort at first because [they] can't just walk in and do it," he says. Though nothing's set in stone, the owner tells us that there's been interest from prospective partners. 

It's hard to picture Nick Tahou Hots without Alex Tahou behind the counter, but one thing is abundantly clear after our visit: Rochester wouldn't be the same without this remarkable restaurant.