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The Sons Also Rise

A family recipe for success (and, of course, chili) lives on at Sam's No. 3.

Our third visit to Sam's was a side trip into Mexico. Although Alex says they'll be expanding this lineup soon, the burritos were more than enough to keep me satisfied. The beef version ($6.50) looked like a football -- which, by the way, you can watch on one of the not-too-obtrusive televisions on either side of the room -- and was filled with spicy taco meat and black beans (refried or pinto available on request) and topped with more good green chili, lettuce, tomato, cheddar, sour cream and an excellent garlicky guacamole. The taco platter ($5.95) split the same ingredients between three corn tortillas; standing in for the green was a just-made salsa with quite a kick.

Back for round four, our waiter sold us on the chicken-fried steak and eggs ($5.35), which he'd just had and promised were mmm-mmm good. And yes, they were. Sam's heavily breaded, thinly pounded skirt steak had been deep-fried into a fritter and creamed with country gravy; on the side were the requested sunnyside-up eggs, toast and home fries. We also dug into a three-cheese omelette ($4.25), a three-egg affair that contained enough Monterey jack, mozzarella and cheddar cheeses to keep all of Wisconsin's cows busy. And while the kids' menu is standard, the well-broiled cheeseburger ($2.55) and the thick, buttery grilled cheese ($1.95) were top-notch, as well as being real deals, since the price included fries and a drink. Also included was excellent service: Sam's super-cheerful employees went above and beyond the call to make sure my kids were taken care of.

In fact, I didn't notice a single service flaw during any of my visits. But maybe that's because I was too busy sucking down one of Sam's milkshakes. The best is the caramel shake ($3.25), which in my considerable experience has always sported big drips of caramel down the insides of the glass; the chocolate was fine, too. And the margaritas are another Sam's bonus: They come in glasses the size of milkshake tumblers, contain about three shots of tequila and cost just $3. To sober up, sip a double-mocha latte: Sam's is one of the few restaurants in town to boast an exclusive contract with Starbucks. (Coffee drinks are also available to go from the little espresso bar -- yeah, Sam's has one of those, too.)

You've got male: Sam (from left), Alex and Patrick Armatas carry on a family tradition.
Q Crutchfield
You've got male: Sam (from left), Alex and Patrick Armatas carry on a family tradition.

If I have one complaint about Sam's, it's that on some nights, the smoking and non-smoking sections seem a little too close for comfort. This is a minor quibble, though, and the one time I spoke up about it, the smoker who was two tables away offered to move. (When a restaurant is as accommodating as Sam's, diners tend to be accommodating, too.) And even that rough edge will soon be smoothed: Alex says the brothers are still trying to work out some logistics, and one of their projects is improving the seating.

"We've come a long way from the days when my grandfather had to ask people to sit on their newspapers when they came into Sam's No. 3 on Curtis because there were only nineteen stools and a line out the door -- and if people had taken the time to read the paper, we'd have gone out of business," Alex says.

"But we don't ever want to get so far from those days that we forget what it's all about. So our goal is definitely old-fashioned service and cooking methods, but, well, we've got more than nineteen stools to take care of now, and so the three of us are at it all the time," he continues. "It's not hard work, you know, but the point is that you've got to be here, and you've got to love it, and you've got to take care of it."

Spoken like a true family man.

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