Get ready, Pittsburgh, “garbage plates” are taking over Mad Mex Oakland

click to enlarge Get ready, Pittsburgh, “garbage plates” are taking over Mad Mex Oakland
Photo: bhofack2
What a Pilez "garbage plate" might look like
The most delectable, divisive, and frankly weird-but-perfect food I know of is coming to Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood soon. It’s Mecca, it’s Christmas, it’s that first warm spring day after a long winter. At least, it is for the few hundred or so of us Rochester, New York transplants living in the city. “Garbage plates” are invading Pittsburgh. (More on why that’s in quotes in a moment.) All anyone else can do is listen to us being annoying about it. We’re just too happy.

Mad Mex Oakland was a Pittsburgh institution. Our own Editor-in-Chief Ali Trachta wrote its eulogy when it closed. But “garbage plates?" They’re a Rochester institution, and Zechariah Vanzo, general manager of Mero Restaurant Group – which owns Stack’d, CHiKN, and Melt’d, among others – is bringing them to Mad Mex’s former location as the new restaurant, Pilez.

Now, if you’re not happy about another dubiously spelled restaurant taking over one of Oakland’s formerly great flagships, that’s fine. We’re not here to convince you that’s good or bad.

What we are here to convince you of is the undeniable culinary greatness that is a “garbage plate.”

But first, I should probably back up and explain what the fuck I’m talking about. “Garbage plates” are a specifically Rochester invention, so much so that the restaurant that created them, Nick Tahou’s, has the term trademarked (hence the name Pilez in the upcoming Pittsburgh establishment). Nick Tahou’s is a dive to end all dives, founded in 1918 by a Greek immigrant named Alexander Tahou. As a response to lean economic years and a working-class customer base hungering for something hearty, Tahou’s started to serve “hots and potatoes”: potatoes and hot dogs made by Zweiegle’s, an iconic local brand.

Of course, this hearty meal that was born out of necessity and the need to feed cash-strapped folks during war time was co-opted by the other great churn of American prosperity: really, really drunk people. A mashup of hearty, caloric food found its natural fanbase in Upstate New York, a land known as much for its ability to consume beer as it is for its ability to withstand snow. Out of this, the current “garbage plate” recipe was born:
  • Two hotdogs, hamburgers, or cheeseburgers (NO BUN)
  • Home fries (French fries are acceptable, but you will be judged)
  • Macaroni salad
  • Meat sauce (The most important element; a mix of ground beef, hot sauce, brown sugar and a few other elements to create something truly glorious)
  • Chopped onions
  • Mustard
  • Ketchup
  • OPTIONAL: baked beans
Combine these elements on a singular plate and mash them together to create a glorious mess of garbage. And if your reaction to this description is “Wow! That sounds disgusting!” Well, sure. Understandable. That said, it’s also wrong. “Garbage plates” are best experienced, not described. They’re best taken in amongst friends, in dives and holes in the wall with cheap lighting and thin paper menus. One of the best spots to get a plate in Rochester has a bouncer. It’s a diner. And it’s the perfect setting to eat cheeseburgers that have a sauce made of ground beef as a topping.

I don’t know if Pilez will bring an authentic “garbage plate” to Pittsburgh, one that will make me proud to tell people “This is the food of my homeland.” What I do know is I will have outlandishly strong opinions about it, as Rochesterians are similar to Pittsburghers in their comical overprotectiveness of anything that can be claimed as their own. Letting the “garbage plate” into a new land is a big step for me; it’s like watching your kid go away to college. If all goes well, I’ll be the proud father, watching a whole group of new “garbage plate” devotees eat one of their favorite meals and then regret it shortly thereafter. No pressure, Pilez.