We all dream about hopping on planes destined for the world's greatest food cities. Yet the fact is flying often comes out of necessity and destinations aren't always the most popular among food bloggers.
When I recently booked a flight for the hills of western New York and Pennsylvania -- not the most sought after destination in mid winter 0- I was determined to make the most of it. I also made it into a mission to eat all of the hometown comfort foods I'd long heard my fiancée talk about, but never myself tried.
Much of the trip centered on Rochester, N.Y. situated just south of Lake Ontario. The area is famous for many things, including brutally cold weather and storms that can drop more than a foot and a half of snow.
The cold weather is an easy explanation for the food. Rochester is famous for the Garbage Plate, a Styrofoam container heaped with home fries, macaroni salad, cole slaw and baked beans. The whole thing is crowned with everything from a cheese hamburger ($9) (or three for $10.25) to Zweigle's White Hots, a locally made hot dog/sausage that's smoky with a pale grey color that made me think of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. Lastly you're offered a ladleful of 'hot sauce,' which is actually a spicy, meat-only chili that tops off the massive meal.
It's one of those legendary dishes that a few places around town claim to have invented but is served under a variety of names. At Penfield Hots Gary and Sharon Brockler have been piling up "Rubbish Plates" for more than a decade. Inside a squat white building pictures of high school regulars were scattered across the walls. A picture the family's former pit bull, Diablo, hung near the counter where you order with only the word "justice" written below. Pit bulls seem to catch a bum wrap around the country, and the Brocklers' dog was shot four times when police responded to a complaint of a party in the neighborhood.
A one-time boomtown Rochester's population has fallen since peaking in the mid 20th century. It is still home to a number of high tech companies - Eastman Kodak, Xerox and Bausch & Laumb - though their size by employment today pales in comparison to years past. The number of jobs at Kodak in Rochester fell from 61,000 at its height to less than 7,000 after the company declared bankruptcy in early 2012.
Sure there are strip malls, and cloudy backdrop made them even drearier to watch go by in a car.
Yet here multinational fast food corporations haven't either bought out or driven local and regional competitors into the ground.
In one parking lot stood a Mighty Taco, a Mexican fast-food restaurant that started in Buffalo and now has 20 locations across western New York. It offered the same kind of greasy, delicious, Americanized Tex-Mex you can find at another chain. You know, the one that recently traded a talking Chihuahua spokesperson for a celebrity chef.
The regional operation also knew how to caters to local tastes. Take for example Mighty Taco's Buffito: A burrito with chicken strips tossed in buffalo sauce and stuffed inside a tortilla with blue cheese. Simple? Yes, but that's what you get with a locally run business that knows what the people want.
Another local chain, Bill Gray's, helped me round out the comfort/junk food checklist. The first was a fish fry ($10.95) that's a favorite year round but is particularly popular during Lent Many people give up red meat in the time between Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday. Most places serve it on Friday's and it was so widely available picking just one seemed impossible. The dish is generally made up of a massive Haddock filet fried in cornmeal flour served with French fries, a fluffy dinner roll and a either a side of cole slaw or macaroni salad. A little salty and a little sweet it was the perfect meal for a cold winter night.
I was also obligated to get at least one ground round. Sure burgers are served all over the country, but in this part they're something special. While the rest of us seem refinding our taste for real hamburger as opposed to fast food-hockey pucks Rochester avoided the trap. All over town, and most famously at a joint called Don's Original, these too-big-for-their bun burgers are served on rolls from nearby local bakeries. It's something about real meat and the flavor and grease of a griddle that makes these one of the things people want when they return home.
It's easy to talk down to a Rust Belt City, even the name is derogatory, but what these cities supposedly lack they make up for in everything from affordability to the residents' general demeanor. It's a delight to get in a car and at least feel like drivers aren't as eager to barrel through you or force you off the road as they are in South Florida. Rochester also has a handful of universities known around the country and world for research in medicine and technology.
As I left Bill Gray's I overheard a man trying to buy dinner for a father who had lost his wallet and his son. When was the last time you saw something like that in South Florida?
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