By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
Like father, like sons.
Although the Armatas boys tried career paths other than the one pursued by their dad and his dad, they knew it was futile. "We figured that sooner or later, we'd be in the restaurant business," says Alex Armatas, the middle brother. "We all tried to do our own thing, but deep down, we knew where we'd end up."
But where they've ended up is just fine: Sam's No. 3, an Aurora spot named after one of five Coney Island eateries founded by their grandfather, Sam Armatas. From 1927 until the last one closed in 1971, the diners enjoyed immense popularity, and the most popular of all was the original Sam's No. 3, at 15th and Curtis streets. So even while they dabbled in teaching, art and acting, Sam, now 33, Alex, 28, and Patrick, 25, would discuss carrying on the family tradition started by their grandfather and carried on by their father, Spero, who today still runs the nearly thirty-year-old Newbarry's.
"We always talked about wanting to do a restaurant together that would have the identity with our family's history here but that would sort of expand on it," Alex explains. "We knew that we'd have to have the famous red chili and the Coney Island stuff. But we also wanted to offer dishes that would appeal to a wider variety of people so that a table could order three or four different types of foods at the same time. And that's what we're trying to do here."
After finally surrendering to the inevitable, last year the brothers took over a space once occupied by the horrible Coco's and began transforming it into an eatery worthy of the family name. The old favorites are here, but so is the expanded lineup of cuisine that they had envisioned. As we looked around the dining room, we saw one family of five digging into dishes as diverse as trout almondine, biscuits with gravy, pork souvlaki, a New York strip steak and a Coney Island dog with red chili. You can only hope that the family that eats together like that takes Rolaids together.
Of course, the first thing we had to try was that infamous red chili, what Rocky Mountain News columnist Gene Amole once referred to as "Greek chile," a moniker the Armatas family now uses on its menu. One bite told us it had earned its fame. The chili's as thick as country gravy, studded with chunks of pork and full of tomatoes cooked down until they were the consistency of a slightly thinned-out paste. The red's recipe is a closely guarded family secret. "Only about eight people know how the whole thing is made," says Alex. "Different people in the kitchen do the initial prep on it, and then a family member does the final assembling and spicing. The recipe itself is kept in a safe."
We had tried the red as part of the Haystack ($3.75), a Coney Island tradition that involves chili, jalapeños, pinto beans (you can order it without beans, too) and heaven knows what else poured over a bowl filled with Fritos, then topped with shredded cheddar, lettuce and freshly diced tomato. The only thing we would have changed about this glorious goo was to throw the Fritos on last so that they retained some of their crunch. But why mess with success? Another old family favorite, the tomato-heavy, medium-spicy, pork-studded green chili, came with the Trailblazer ($4.35). Sam's No. 3 boasts "Breakfast Served Anytime," and any hour would have been a good time to dig into this enormous mound of crisp-edged home fries grilled with diced onions, smothered in the green and blanketed with melted cheddar.
We also took on a plate of fried chicken ($7.25), four pieces of bird that were moist inside and out, coated in a batter that had become one with the skin. The chicken came with a scoop of real mashed potatoes still containing a few chunks, as well as a side bowl of country gravy (read: pepper-packed wallpaper paste) and some steamed vegetables that didn't taste like they'd been in a freezer minutes before. Like all of Sam's entrees, the chicken also included a dinner roll and soup or salad -- in this case, mixed greens, sliced cucumbers and carrot strands topped by thick, sour-creamy blue-cheese dressing that contained big blobs of blue.
But the best part of the bargain that is Sam's is that entrees come with dessert as well -- and not just some old freezer-burned ball of ice cream, either. The complimentary confection is always rice pudding, made from yet another family recipe that results in such a custardy, rich, cinnamon-packed version that any other rice pudding is stiff cafeteria fodder. It was the stuff of dreams -- and arguments, as we fought over just who exactly had ordered the chicken and therefore owned the dessert. To settle things down, we had to split a slice of killer chocolate cake with homemade frosting and a piece of freshly baked apple pie (each $3) that were almost as dreamy as the pudding. Almost.
In that big eating orgy, we'd barely skimmed Sam's surface. So on our next stop, we ventured into the sandwich portion of the menu, which includes an assortment of hot and cold items. The hot beef ($4.95) was the brown-and-white classic of Wonder bread triangles topped with juicy sliced roast beef and smothered in a salty dark-brown gravy; it was sided by fries so crispy that the gravy couldn't penetrate their golden goodness. The gyros-filled pita ($4.95) came stuffed with tender chunks of ground lamb along with finely diced red onion and tomatoes; a side of tsatsiki sauce pulled it all together nicely. The thickly battered fish-and-chips ($5.85), oily and crunchy outside with moist, delicious cod inside, needed no more than a shake of malt vinegar to keep things interesting.
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.)
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.