One feature of living in New York City is that you can always eat like you live somewhere else. Chicago-style pizza, New Orleans po’boys, New England lobster rolls, and plenty of other regional American specialties are so easy to track down here that it can be genuinely surprising when something new arrives. And it is indeed big news, in certain circles, that chef Brian Heiss has announced the opening of Brooklyn Hots, a Clinton Hill restaurant that specializes in the Rochester favorite known as the Garbage Plate.
Why is this such a big deal? Truthfully, I wasn’t entirely sure, until I started talking to my colleague, Vulture editor Neil Janowitz, a former Rochester resident and an avowed Garbage-Plate connoisseur, who was happy to fill me in on what I’d been missing.
You recently sent me a Slack to tell me how excited you are about the opening of a new restaurant called Brooklyn Hots.
It was a nice surprise, because we’ve worked together for many years and I think this is the first time you’ve ever sent me a message about a new restaurant. Why is this opening so exciting?
I’m not a foodie at all. It’s not that I don’t appreciate good food. I just don’t know what goes into good food. But I went to school at the University of Rochester, where I was first introduced to the Garbage Plate.
I’ve heard the term, but I’ve always pictured something like disco fries. I’m realizing now this is not correct.
Garbage Plates started in Rochester at a place called Nick Tahou’s. As I understand it, the original Nick Tahou’s served truck drivers. The idea was you’d go in and get this hearty, high-calorie meal, and you’d get all of your energy at once. A proper Garbage Plate consists of a protein, which is traditionally either hamburger or hot dog; hash browns; mac salad or pasta of some sort; and then meat sauce slathered all over the thing. Most diners in Rochester serve a version. Everything’s on the griddle. They scoop one corner, scoop another corner, slop it into a Styrofoam dish, put the meat sauce on top, and you’re out the door.
It sounds like something that’s most enjoyable if you are not sober.
Absolutely. We would go to Monroe Avenue in Rochester. That’s the bar district, and there are diners. A lot of those places serve a Garbage Plate. I used to bartend in the area, too. After your shift, you’d go get a Garbage Plate.
If it has pasta salad on it, is it all … hot?
Yeah, it’s warm. Texturally, it’s very satisfying. If you get everything together, it’s a nice bite on your fork.
Who makes the best Garbage Plate in Rochester?
I always liked Gitsis, on Monroe Avenue, but it’s closed now. I haven’t been back in years, so I can’t speak to the current standouts. This list suggests that places are doing interesting things with their Plates.
Do we know why it’s called a Garbage Plate, as opposed to, I don’t know, any other combination of words?
I’m sure the history is out there, but the name suits it: It’s all slopped together.
And until now, you couldn’t get one in New York City?
For a while, you could. A friend introduced me to Daddy-O, which unfortunately closed during the pandemic. This was probably 10 or 15 years ago. The owner of Daddy-O had connections to both Pittsburgh, where my family has lived at various times, and Rochester. It was a Steelers bar that served Garbage Plates, and it stayed open until 4 a.m., so it checked every box for me.
If I’m a Garbage-Plate newbie, how should I order it? Is there Garbage-Plate jargon I’ll need to know ahead of time?
Not really. Do you know about Cincinnati chili?
With that, you can order it “three-ways” or “four-ways” or whatever, and those all mean slightly different things. With a Garbage Plate, it’s pretty straightforward. You just get all the shit together.
But you have to choose your meat.
Yeah, hot dog versus hamburger, that’s the big choice.
Could you get half and half? A little bit of hamburger and a little bit of hot dog?
At Daddy-O, it would depend on the waiter, but it was possible. I always asked for mine without mustard, and my wife Sarah would ask for hers without onion.
Your wife is a fan, too?
After we started dating, I introduced her to Daddy-O, and she loved the Garbage Plates so much that when we worked at our old office, which was pretty close to the restaurant, she’d sometimes ask me to pick one up on the way home. When we got married, we wanted to serve Plates at the wedding after-party, so we went to Daddy-O and asked if they’d give us the recipe for the meat sauce. They said no, but did give us a pint of it, and the chef at the place where we got married reverse-engineered it for us. Their sauce had a nice heat to it.
I wasn’t expecting our conversation about Garbage Plates to become a sweet story.
Friends from U of R who still live in the city told me about Brooklyn Hots, and I told Sarah, who was like, “We’re going immediately.” She went to college at UNC, and the night of the Final Four we tried to get Brooklyn Hots takeout in what would have been a spectacular celebration of our respective past lives — but they’re not doing takeout yet. Anyway, I’m probably booked for multiple visits.
Sounds like Garbage Plates have a following.
There’s a strong nostalgic component, for sure. I took everyone from Rochester to Daddy-O when they’d visit, and it was so delightful to find that in the city. I can’t wait to have it again.
Okay, I’m sold. Are there other Rochester delicacies that I need to know about?
I’ll be honest: I can’t think of any.