With eyes closed, bite into a Rock Burger and relish the shock of texture and flavor. In one chomp, the eater might encounter creamy Buffalo wing dip, a juicy slab of beef, smooth provolone and ... the crunch of crushed Doritos. That's just one bite.
Jason Lizardo's stuffed burgers at Niagara Falls' Rock Burger have become social media legend, and his cult following has led him to announce a second Niagara Falls location, at 8529 Niagara Falls Boulevard, expected to open in January. A Buffalo location is in the owner's plans, too.
Since 2016, Lizardo has served from a small kitchen in the back of Players Lounge, a sports bar in the shadow of the Seneca Niagara Casino (328 Niagara St.). The Niagara Falls Boulevard joint will be his first stand-alone venture, but his broader mission extends far beyond a local scope.
"I want to put one in Buffalo," Lizardo said. "I want to expand in Western New York first, then into every state if I can. I want to be the first stuffed burger chain in the United States. As far as stuffed burgers go, why can't I be up there with Five Guys?"
Lizardo's beastly burger menu - a fraction of what he'll offer on Niagara Falls Boulevard - finds joy in excess. The Buffalo Wing Dipper, Rock Burger's best seller, is a half-pound burger - cooked to order - stuffed with original Doritos and provolone, then topped with Buffalo chicken wing dip, provolone, bacon and hot sauce ($11.95).
Met with a initial cynicism - too often grandiose concoctions conceal mediocre to poor ingredients - the Wing Dipper exceeded expectations, with the crunch of the Doritos and ample provolone complemented by a healthy heap of the creamy wing dip. It's supreme comfort food, but Lizardo explained a little of the method behind the stuffed-burger madness.
"You're eating cheese inside and out of the burger instead of just on top," the owner said. "You're getting more cheese - people love cheese. [The flavors from the stuffed ingredients] cook through the meat; if you have jalapenos inside your burger ... every bite you're going to get a taste of jalapeno, not just when you bite into one."
The No. 1 - dubbed the Niagara ($8.95, pictured above) - is fundamental in that it's just not as crazy as its menu brethren. Stuffed and topped with cheddar, the Niagara comes with a choice of lettuce, tomato and onion, with either ketchup, mustard or mayonnaise. Burgers are served with chips; fries or tater tots are available for an additional charge.
The stuffed burger concept keeps the meat moist and influences the flavor of the beef only to a small degree, at least in most cases. Even though the burger was cooked more medium than the medium-rare requested, it was far from dry.
Even more wild is Rock Burger's sweet-and-savory portion of the menu, from which the Cheesecake Wonder ($11.95) is the most popular. Stuffed inside the usual half-pound burger foundation is New York-style cheesecake - think gooey rather than cake-like - with a strawberry glaze and bacon on top.
When asked how cheesecake and hamburger could possibly work in harmony, Lizardo provided his rationale.
"Sweet and savory: a lot of people do it with other stuff, why can't you do it with burgers?" he asked rhetorically. "Cream cheese is one of the best, if not the best, condiment for a burger, in how it melts and tastes with red meat."
The Tight Rope Walker, $10.50, is the second-most popular order. It's a half-pound burger stuffed with double bacon and double cheddar, topped with more bacon and cheddar, then a fried egg to boot. You will probably want a nap after.
The Niagara Falls native frequently pushes the envelope with new offerings, too, with a crab rangoon-stuffed burger and Rock rolls - essentially burger-stuffed egg rolls - added in the last few weeks.
Lizardo can barely keep pace with demand; on a recent visit, Rock Burger had four takeout orders and two tables of customers even before doors opened officially at 1 p.m. (that's a peril of sharing one entrance with a bar). By 1:30, the roughly 20 seats were all occupied, and a line of people placing takeout orders snaked to the entry.
This explosion of popularity came quickly, as Lizardo's dream in 2016, when he was brainstorming burgers out of his kitchen, was a seasonal fleet of food carts to cater to Niagara Falls' massive tourism draw: 11 million people between Memorial Day and Labor Day, Lizardo said.
Although he knew the location wouldn't be easy to advertise, the rear of Players Lounge allowed Lizardo to serve year round and grow his brand, primarily through social media, internet marketing and word of mouth.
Rock Burger's menu isn't all beef-focused. A slew of chicken sandwiches, a vegan burger and turkey burger round out more healthy options, with gluten-free buns, "burger bowls" (ground beef on a bed of spring mix with toppings such as guacamole) and veggie-burger salads expected for the coming location.
While the Niagara Falls Boulevard spot won't serve alcohol, there will be milkshakes ranging from classic flavors to more unusual, such as Reese's, Twix, cookie dough, Skittles and Starburst. The new spot, formerly home to Ground Round Restaurant, Marco's Pizza and Family Video, will seat about 40 people.
Lizardo's stuffed-burger empire still has a ways to go, but if the popularity of his new Niagara Falls Boulevard location matches or exceeds what he's accomplished huddled in the back of an old-timer bar, the sky is the limit.
INFO: Rock Burger, 328 Niagara St., Niagara Falls, with second location, at 8529 Niagara Falls Blvd., Niagara Falls, to open in January. Phone: 436-1102, for Niagara Street. Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 1 to 8 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday.