BY ERIC LACLAIR
Many cities or regions are identified by a special food or dish. Philadelphia has its cheese steaks. Chicago, deep-dish pizza. When it comes to Rochester, the food most often associated with the area is the garbage plate, and the "hots" restaurant at which it is usually served. Whether you're hanging out downtown, or in one of the surrounding suburbs, chances are there is a "hots" joint nearby. While every Rochesterian has his or her own opinion on which local restaurant serves up the best "plate," we can all agree that the spicy, greasy, delicious concoctions are Rochester staples.
First, some terminology for the non-natives. "Hots" in Rochester refer to hot dogs, which here can come in red or white version. "Plates" are available in many combinations. Standard ingredients are burgers, hot dogs, sausage, grilled cheese, or eggs for a base. A selection of those is mixed with sides like macaroni salad, home fries, French fries, beans, or potato salad. However, some hots joints offer more combinations than others.
But how did the plate and hots restaurants come to their nearly ubiquitous local status? The history of the Rochester plate is a long and complicated one, and the seemingly simple dish has changed considerably in its nearly 100-year history.
According to the Food Network show "Unwrapped," the plate can be traced back to 1918, when the Rochester metropolitan area was bustling with nearly 300,000 residents. Many of those people were blue-collar workers in the factories and mills downtown. How do you feed hungry workers quickly and cheaply? With heaping plates of easily prepared food.
Cue the original garbage plate. In its earliest incarnation, traditional plates typically had a combination of potatoes, beans, and two red hots. Early variants were known as "hots and po-tots," and were available at a downtown restaurant named Hots and Potatoes, located on Main Street.
Over time, the restaurant's popularity grew, and it transformed into the hots forefather known today as Nick TahouHots. The hots and po-tots also gained popularity among area college students who would ask for "the plate with all the garbage on it," which led to the less-than-hygienic name, which was eventually trademarked by Tahou's in 1992.
The plate has gone on to national fame/infamy, having been spotlighted on several food-based television programs like "Man vs. Food." And website health.com named it the fattiest food in New York, so we have that going for us.
But that assumes that all plates are created equal. Each Rochester plate is different in its own way. Here's a walk along "hots" lane, looking at some of the local hots restaurants that have gained a reputation for their plates and more.
A favorite of many younger Rochesterians, as well as residents living east of the city, Penfield Hots (1794 Penfield Road, Penfield, 586-4979) has a loyal fan base -- just look at all of the pictures of patrons lining the walls. Located in a small plaza next to Penfield's four corners, P-Hotsis your standard hots joint. At Penfield you will find the "rubbish plate," along with a full menu of other grilled-up items: red hots, white hots, burgers, sandwiches, and everything in between
However there are plenty other hots restaurants on the east side of the city including, but not limited, to Empire Hots (2209 Empire Blvd., Webster, 787-2110), Fairport Hots (1226 Fairport Road, Fairport, 586-4540), and Bill Gray's (1650 Penfield Road, Penfield, 385-3450).
If you are west of Rochester, there are plenty of fine establishments for your hots fix. Greece Hots (745 Maiden Lane, Greece, 663-5720) is, not surprisingly, a favorite of many in the Greece area. Offering a nearly identical menu to P-Hots, G-Hotsis the popular place to pick up a plate or some grilled goodness on the west side. Other west-side hots restaurants include Steve T. Hots and Potatoes (2260 Lyell Ave., Gates, 429-6388), Chili Hots (3774 Chili Ave., Chili, 889-1770), and Jimmy Z's (53 Main St., Brockport, 637-7060).
If you are looking for the true Mecca of hots joints, downtown Rochester is the place to be. Whether you dine at one of the various diners on Monroe Avenue or the holy grail on West Main Street, downtown is the hots hot spot.
A favorite amongst many city residents is a small building tucked in on Monroe Avenue, Dogtown (691 Monroe Ave., 271-6620, dogtownhots.com). While the dining area is slightly larger than the previous mentioned joints, Dogtown prides itself on its wide array of hot dogs, but there are other options, including burgers, vegetarian-friendly meals, and of course its own take on the plate, the "junkyard plate" with hot dog, burgers, or even veggie dogs, and your choice of sides.
Just down the road is another city favorite, Mark's Texas Hots (487 Monroe Ave., 473-1563). Like the others, Mark's offers traditional diner fare with an accent on grilled items. Mark's is especially popular in the wee hours of the morning after the bars let out, as it is open 24/7.
Just a few miles away is a diner offering a slightly classed-up version of the garbage plate. James Brown's Place (1356 Culver Road, 288-4250, jamesbrownsplace.net) has a large menu, but we are still focusing on hots and garbage plates, or in this case the "pig trough." While it offers many of the same items you would find at a hots stop, James Brown's uses homemade macaroni salad, and a different take on the home fry rather than the deep-fried potato chunks featured in most plates. James also offers some of the most flavorful and spicy hot sauce I have yet had on a plate.
While there a plenty of established hots restaurants [see sidebar], this story would not be complete without a mention of the originator: Nick TahouHots (320 W. Main St., 436-0184, garbageplate.com). Ninety-four years ago, Tahou introduced us to the garbage plate, and has been perfecting it ever since. You know he truly hit the nail on the head when there are dozens of restaurants in our area offering their take on your signature dish nearly a century later.
Additional hots restaurants
IrondequoitHots635 Titus Ave., Irondequoit, 266-6840
Henrietta Hots3553 W. Henrietta Road, Henrietta, 424-4687
RochesterHots196 Winton Road, 654-9606
Bill Gray's Many area locations, billgrays.com
Tom Wahl's Many area locations, tomwahls.com
GitsisTexasHots600 Monroe Ave., 271-8260
Hungry's Grill10 State St., Pittsford, 385-4031
Vic and Irv Refreshments4880 Culver Road, 544-7680
If we missed any hots restaurants, please let us know by commenting on this story at rochestercitynewspaper.com.