Making a single unusual food item the foundation of your restaurant's menu is a risky proposition. Menu writers tend to head in the other direction, offering broad catchment areas for customer dollars. Joe Blaszczak and Adrienne Seekins didn’t play it that way.
In December, when they opened Stooges in Lockport's Old Town Hall, they were willing to gamble their first restaurant on an idea: stuffed burgers.
Burgers with a core of molten cheese have been around for decades, though rare in local restaurants. The Stooges twist is taking a non-burger dish – say, chicken Parmesan – and presenting its essential flavors in burger form. Tomato-sauced spaghetti and mozzarella, tucked inside a chicken burger, arrives on a bun, looking robustly plump, but not otherwise unusual.
The surprise of the first bite –it does taste like chicken parm – is followed swiftly by a sense of wonder. If Stooges can deliver a handheld chicken parm simulator, what other favorites can it transmogrify into handheld parcels of satisfaction?
Stooges didn't invent the notion of a stuffed burger, but it does take them to the next level. The cheese-stuffed Jucy Lucy (spelled that way by the originator) has been popularized in Wisconsin after its 1950s invention in a Minneapolis bar.
But the Lucy payload was cheese alone. Stooges' menu looks at other iconic dishes, and reimagined them in patty form. Buffalo's most famous taste sensation shows up as a chicken patty filled with blue cheese, Anchor Bar wing sauce and shaved celery and carrots ($13, with curly or sweet potato waffle fries).
Buffalo-style tacos show up in the Taco on a Bun ($13, featured image), a beef patty bulging with salsa, sour cream, hot sauce and shredded cheddar.
This approach could have gone wrong in engineering (leaking patties) or execution (muted flavors), but that didn’t happen. Stooges stuffed burgers stood up to handheld while eating, while distinctly delivering flavors that the menu promised. The Taco on a Bun offered the taste sensations – and an upscaled case of guilty pleasure - of a Super Mighty. Just better, even when sober.
If that's not the way you want to dine, by the way, Stooges can help. There's a full bar, with complimentary pretzel rods for drinkers. A half-dozen draft taps mix local craft beers, like 12 Gates West Coast IPA, with macrobrews like Blue Moon.
There are choices besides stuffed burgers. A vegetable platter offers crudité with sprightly fresh-chopped olive tapenade and forgettable hummus ($9).
Gooey macaroni and cheese is available both regular ($7) and "krazy," ($9) denoting a flavor-booster that changes weekly. During my visit krazy equaled chili, which was also available as a soup ($5).
Mac and cheese also is rolled into balls, crusted and fried. Cracking open a trio of baseball-sized golden orbs ordered krazy ($8) was an exercise in self-control, balancing the threat of scalding innards with the urge to gobble.
There's salads, from chopped house ($5) to Greek, with romaine and feta cheese with a chicken patty ($12). Yes, there are vegetarian and vegan options, including an animal-product-free burger, discouragingly labeled the Lonely Vegan ($11). The portobello stuffed burger ($11), two burger-sized mushroom caps sandwiching garlicky spinach, roasted red peppers and cheese, was plenty flavorful.
Curly fries and sweet potato waffle fries, which come glazed with more sweetness, were crisp and plentiful. Eggplant fries were crunchy enough, but tasted mostly of coating. Carrot and parsnip fries were a welcome alternative, more chewy than crunchy, their natural sugars concentrated by their journey through hot oil.
But my attention kept coming back to the burgers. My favorite was Da Bomb ($13), a jumbo sausage patty stuffed with cherry peppers, banana peppers, and smoked gouda cheese, served on ciabatta. At first bite it seemed too much, but when I was finished with it, I wished there was more of it.
A jerk chicken burger ($13) delivered another revelation, hiding crunchy pineapple cole slaw, with pungent allspice-laced jerk sauce, inside a pudgy chicken disk. Stooges can make a chicken burger that's not even close to dry, its surface finished to a fetching bronzed sear.
The other big surprise at Stooges was the loveliness of the location. New restaurants in old buildings can be an ungainly union, but Stooges seems right in place inside the stocky stone structure, built in 1864. Aged wooden floors and a tastefully decorated interior with slate-blue walls sport tables with plenty of room between them. Views of the locks through bar-side windows add to the scenery.
At first blush, a stuffed burger bar sounds like a Facebook food video turned into a restaurant. The reality is much better, a new family restaurant with a notable view. The narrow menu may hurt its appeal to diverse groups.
Perhaps its distinctive signature offerings will become popular enough to offset that. I have my hopes. If your crowd was like mine, when they meet these burgers, they're going to flip.
Stooges – 8 plates (out of 10)
Location: 2 Pine St., Lockport (434-1100)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Prices: appetizers, $5-$9; burgers, $11-$13.
Wheelchair accessible: No. There are steps leading up to dining room.
Gluten-free options: lots, including burger buns, beer and fries.