Sweet and sour


Even though the grand unveiling isn't until Wednesday evening, Frostee Rucker has already sampled the "Lotta Domata" hamburger that celebrates his friend and fellow lineman along the Bengals defensive front.

"Oh yeah it's good," Rucker says. "I've already had two."

Why not? These New Era Bengals are lean and hungry with explosive youth on offense and saucy with the NFL's second-ranked defense. So why not recognize their 4-2 start with some choice beef named after Domata Peko, still sharing the lead for most tackles by an NFL interior defender even though he was off last week?  

The People's Choice beef.

"Here's the kind of guy that Domata is," says Rick Thompson, the California transplant who developed the burger for the Cincinnati riverfront. "He would come in so much that we gave him a VIP card. But he never used it. He'd always come in with his family and pay just like everyone else."

Thanks to Thompson and his new Johnny Rockets restaurant that opens this week on The Banks between Paul Brown Stadium and Great American Ball Park at 191 E. Freedom Way, Peko is still paying. For every "Lotta Domata" sold, $1 goes to the United Way of Cincinnati with Thompson and Peko pledging a minimum of $5,000.

"It's the best way to give back to the community and I want to make sure the money stays here in the tri-state," Peko says. "I love the United Way for all the different things that they do and we just did the Hometown Huddle with them a few weeks ago. This way, the money can go to where they need it."

Peko is a familiar name as a six-year veteran, but he is one of the faces that has come to embody the New Era Bengals. No nonsense and all in, as head coach Marvin Lewis would say. Lewis has a steak named after him in town (regular cut filet mignon at The Precinct), but he loves this team because burgers and sandwiches fit into a lunch bucket. This is no reality TV buffet.

All of which is no surprise to Thompson, an owner and operator of a couple of Johnny Rockets in the area used to hosting Bengals at his store in Newport on the Levee. He's been serving Peko ever since he and Rucker came into the league in 2006, along with guys like defensive lineman Jon Fanene, left tackle Andrew Whitworth, and tight end Jermaine Gresham.

A group of them got together last week when Thompson wanted to put the "Lotta Domata" through a dry run.

"It's usually Mondays when they have meetings in the morning and then get out some time early in the afternoon and they come over for lunch," Thompson says. "Very nice guys. Very family-oriented. Anybody who knows Domata knows he's as nice as they come. He's always very friendly when people come up to him in the restaurant and want to talk."

It turns out that Thompson had been taking notes on what Peko's favorite choices were off the menu. The players always kidded each other that Thompson never seemed to have pineapple for Peko, so it's fitting that the piece de resistance *of the "Lotta Domata" is a grilled slice of pineapple on top, a nod to Peko's Samoan heritage.*  

"Fresh ground burger with Swiss cheese, smoked bacon on a butter toasted bun with a Pan-Asian sauce we developed," Thompson says. "The sauce has a sweet taste to it, but it has a little bit of heat when it hits the cheese and onion. With the grilled pineapple, it's a unique taste."

Peko loves it. A little sweet. A little sour.

"That's kind of how I see myself," Peko says. "Sweet off the field. That's what my wife says. And mean and nasty on the field."

He and Anna have two boys, Domata Jr., 6, and Joseph, 3, and they are Johnny Rockets veterans.

"I like it because to me it seems like the All-American place," Peko says. "You can bring your family and it's nice and relaxed. Your kids can be screaming their heads off or run around and no one seems to mind. And the food is great."

Thompson is trying to make the delicate transition from your typical Johnny Rockets during the day to a sports bar at night that still maintains an intimate feel and family-friendly vibe. With customers like Peko, he can't lose.

"We keep joking about this one thing that happened not that long ago," Thompson says of a time one of his servers spilled a soda on a large crucifix swinging from Peko's neck.

"The server was really upset, but Domata told them that they needed to calm down, that it was no problem, and that he would take care of it. He ended up cleaning up everything. But that's the kind of guy he is."

Peko has been busy on the field, too, where NFL.com has him with 26 tackles and tied with two others to lead among tackles.


He's also been busy off the field, where he spent Tuesday morning at Mt. Airy Elementary with Lewis's "Learning Is Cool" program.


"I told them that as long as they try and give the effort," he says, "they can be anything they want. A fireman, a teacher, an NFL player. But they have to work."

Peko has had a similar message to the new Bengals that have arrived in droves, it seems, lately. Suddenly, Peko, Rucker and Robert Geathers are grizzled veterans. During the lockout Peko opened his home and during the season he's opened his arms.

"I've been watching the guy ever since I came in with him as a rookie and he's a great guy to watch as an example," Rucker says. "Just the way he lives his life with his family. I don't know if you could have a better leader on your team."

Peko is usually an open book, but there's one thing he's keeping quiet these days. His charitable foundation is about to make an announcement on a community project it is funding. But no clues just yet.

"I don't want anybody to steal the idea," he says.

On Tuesday, in between his school speech and picking up the kids at school ("We call it rallying the troops," he says), Peko and his wife were enjoying a lunch out. They like the break. At home, Peko does a lot of the cooking as an expert at the barbecue.

"It's nice to hear the buzz when we're out," he says. "People are excited about the Bengals. They're saying keep it up and talking about the 'Uso Defense.' I'm sure you've heard it too, out there. It's fun. We want to keep it going." 

It sounds like he's looking for the right topping. 

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