College students in ND used to devour 'Garbage Plates,' and they loved every minute of it
Why the Red Pepper became a late-night staple for generations of UND students
GRAND FORKS — Taste buds hold memories, right? When you take a bite of a certain food, you’re transmitted back to the past, like Marty McFly in “Back to the Future.”
A bite of cake and ice cream takes you back to your childhood birthday party just like a handful of buttery, salty popcorn reminds you of going to the movies.
And for generations of University of North Dakota students, a bite from a "Garbage Plate” transforms them to their days on campus.
Perhaps that’s too specific. It also happens with a bite of a cheese tostada, grinder or enchilada, as long as they all come from the Red Pepper, a taco joint as synonymous with Grand Forks as green and white hockey jerseys.
The original Red Pepper (there are four now — three in Grand Forks and one in Fargo , near North Dakota State University) is located between campus and downtown at 1011 University Drive in an old pizza restaurant that originally housed a neighborhood grocery store.
The Red Pepper opened around 1961, but really became what it is now in 1973 when it was purchased by Bruce and Janet Tellman. It’s now run by the Tellman’s son Jeff and his wife, Nicki, and still features the old standbys — tacos, grinders and homemade sauces in a rough, ready and rustic atmosphere. The kind of place where customers carve their names into the old wooden booths.
"The first time I was invited to go was the first year in Gillette (a dormitory at UND). I was in sweats, and I asked the other girls on my wing if I needed to dress up to go. The sophomores laughed pretty hard,” said Laura McDaniel of Fargo.
Former UND hockey player Travis Dunn said after practice ended at 5 and having a full dinner at the dorms at 6:30, they’d still save room for Red Pepper.
“We would then order delivery from the Pepper by about 8 p.m. — full grinder, two soft shells, two cheese tostadas. I cannot eat that much today,” said Dunn, who now lives in Moorhead.
“I remember the cheesy tostada and the cheese would make a big oily ring on the thin paper plate. But who cared? It tasted great,” said Janet Noah, a UND grad living in Florida.
But what about that Garbage Plate?
Certainly, the most ominous-sounding dish was something called a Garbage Plate, which students remember as basically the leftover scraps from the preparation of previous dishes.
Jeff Tellman describes the origins of the dish.
“The Garbage Plate came into being in the late ‘70 during bar rush when a late night customer who was short on money asked if he could have everything in the collection pan under our taco rack for his last $1.50.”
And they obliged.
With the Garbage Plate you might get a little meat, cheese and lettuce. Add a shell and a little white sauce or hot sauce, and a cheap meal was born.
But Tellman says the Garbage Plate was definitely a commodity. If you came at the wrong time, there either wouldn’t be enough fixings or somebody got one before you, and the pan was cleaned out.
“You kind of had to get lucky to get one. Customers looking for a Garbage Plate would approach the counter, crane their necks to get a look at the pan to see how much Colby cheese & lettuce was in it, and ask “is there enough for a Garbage Plate?” Tellman said.
Over the years it went from being a “late night” delicacy to something ordered throughout the day.
“It always amused me when a man or woman in business attire would come in for lunch and order a Garbage Plate,” Tellmann said.
Businessman and one-time North Dakota Insurance Commissioner Jim Poolman was a fan during his college days.
“The garbage plate was essential after hitting the downtown bar scene. It was cheap, good and filling. And you saw all your friends there at 1 a.m.,” he said.
The original garbage plate existed until the early 2000s, when the Tellmanns replaced the old free-standing taco station with a refrigerated prep table that doesn’t have a collection pan. But he says they just couldn’t take the garbage plate off the menu. Now you can get it as a Garbage Plate Salad made with fresh ingredients.
A taste of home
Of course, not all UND graduates stay in Grand Forks and Fargo. So they have to rely on visits during holidays, vacations and school reunions.
“Great memories of the Red Pepper! Living in Florida, it’s a must-stop with every summer visit home. Introduced my kids to it and now they insist we go before leaving North Dakota,” Doug DeMars said.
But fans of “The Pep,” can now get some products outside the two cities. The Red Pepper hot sauce is sold at some grocery stores and kits to make grinders (sandwiches that contain taco and other meat, fixings and sauces) can be shipped nationwide.
For example, Red Pepper grinders were served at tailgate parties at the recent UND/Nebraska football game in Lincoln.
UND Graduate Robyn Isaacson, who now lives in Maple Grove, Minn., had a craving for her favorite college food a while back.
“At the start of COVID, my daughter Olivia and her husband, Mike, decided to move in with us because they were living in a small apartment. They are also UND grads. After a couple of weeks, I thought a grinder kit would lift our spirits! Ordered one and it set me back almost $100, but totally worth it! It’s all about the white sauce,” she said.
The accolades extend beyond the memories of local college graduates.
Red Pepper topped Esquire Magazine's list of " Best Late Night Food in the USA ," They have also been featured in USA Today's " 50 States: 50 Standout Sandwiches " and Thrillist named them the "Best Sandwich in North Dakota."
But according to the now all-grown-up UND Red Pepper fans of the past, none of those awards mean as much as the feeling they get when they eat something from “The Pep."
They close their eyes and take a bite. Suddenly, they've lost a few wrinkles (and maybe a few pounds too) and get the overwhelming sense they need to get back to the dorm to study for finals.