When I moved "out West," I never thought I'd make it. Not really. Not way down deep, where a boy's roots grow.
When I first came here with thoughts of commitment -- as opposed to the little visits I'd made in the past, tooling around Santa Fe and Boulder and Tucson and those dinky shitheel towns of eastern California like Barstow and Blythe, but always tied to home, to "back East," by one umbilical or another -- I was figuring on a year, tops. Find an apartment, eat a few tacos, stumble around the border a little if the opportunity presented itself, maybe get weird with the wife for a while, wandering around in the high desert looking for alien spacecraft or unexploded atomic bombs -- and then get the fuck outta Dodge before I started wearing crystal necklaces and buying Kokopeli sculptures for the mantel.
This was the plan -- my plan -- but circumstances were conspiring against me (as circumstances often do) long before I'd shaken the Rust Belt dust off my tires.
We'd been headed, ostensibly, for San Diego, Laura and I. We never made it. Along the way, we stopped for a night in Albuquerque, which turned into a week, which turned into two years before we'd even noticed. I like to say that my New Mexico stint was deliberate, that I went there to learn about Mexican food with every intention of bringing that knowledge back to New York, where fame, fortune and the adulation of the masses would inexorably follow. But the real truth is we'd gotten stuck in construction traffic, got lost, got tired, and just decided to stay.
Still, I got my out-West address (even if it wasn't as far out West as I originally envisioned) and did eat a lot of tacos (because I couldn't afford much else), and although Laura and I never found any alien spacecraft, we did get plenty weird. Along the way, we got married out West, and nearly divorced a week later. I changed careers -- giving up my chef's whites and knife kit for a barbecue-stained T-shirt and a cranky laptop -- and when Albuquerque lost its charms, Laura and I moved to Denver, which is where we are today.
So I've been out West five years and change, all told. I'm happy here. And yet...
And yet I still have it in my head and my heart that this is temporary. When I talk about home, I mean back East -- where our families are, and the friends we left behind, and the lives we interrupted for this extended vacation that accidentally became our lives.
And when I talk about home, I'm most often talking about the diners there. Not about my parents' living room, my childhood bedroom, the neighborhood where I grew up; not about the weather, the accents, the green of it all. When I think of home, I think of the chrome-and-formica greasy spoons where I did all my growing up that mattered.
Greasy spoons that I just didn't find out West. In the same way that a dream of home can turn sinister with the alteration of just a few key details, my homesickness was triggered every time I walked into some place with burritos on the menu and not croquettes; with Patsy Cline in the juke and no Sam and Dean. The look, the smell, the feel of an out-West diner was close to the diners back East, yet different in so many small but fundamental ways. Not better or worse, but different. And in being so close, these diners just reminded me how far away I was.
It's got to be a lot stranger for the Armatas brothers -- Alex, Patrick and Sam. Whereas I'm removed by only five years and a couple thousand miles from what I consider home, the Armatases are two generations and a whole lost world gone from the place where their diner originated.
In the early days of the twentieth century, Sam Armatas, grandfather of the three Armatas boys, arrived in New York City on the deck of a steamer. It was his second trip here -- the first one was interrupted by World War One, when he returned to Greece to fight alongside his countrymen -- and he was again staking his future on an ocean crossing and the promise of the American dream. It was a Scorsese moment: grainy film stock, swelling music, a long sepia-toned view over young Sam's shoulder at the Statue of Liberty or the New York City piers -- and then a splash as Sam jumped ship in the harbor, going over the rail and swimming ashore in order to avoid the complications of the United States' strict wartime immigration standards, an honest-to-Jesus wetback.
Sam made it to shore somewhere in the vicinity of Coney Island, where he got to discover the delights of American diners before a job shoveling coal on the railroad (or just a bed in a boxcar, depending on which brother is telling Grandpa Sam's story) brought him to Denver in the '20s. And while I can't be sure, I'm willing to bet it was homesickness like mine that convinced him to build an out-West Coney-Island-style diner, followed by a second Sam's, then a third -- his flagship joint -- at 15th and Curtis streets. At its high point, Sam Armatas's mini-empire had five locations, all offering ten-cent bowls of chili, Coney Island hotdogs and the tastes of the home where Sam had washed ashore.
In 1964, Sam passed the family business down to his son Spero. One by one, the locations shut down. In 1969, the last Sam's -- #3, downtown -- closed, and the family took the #3 label and put it on a new spot in Aurora. In the meantime, the home of the original Sam's #3 became a White Spot, a Village Inn and, finally, a Mexican place called Playa Azul.
While Thomas Wolfe might claim you can't go home again, don't believe everything you read. Because that's just what the Armatas family did last year, when they bought back the original Curtis Street location and set about returning it to its old glory, and then some. Three generations and a hundred years removed, but as close to home as you can get: That's the new Sam's #3. You can take the boy out of Coney Island, but you can never take Coney Island out of the boy. Or the boy's boy, for that matter. Or the boy's boy's boys.
Although the space has been expanded and updated, filled with acres of fresh upholstery and unscarred formica, the menu hasn't changed a bit. It's a carbon copy lifted straight from the Havana location, which, by all rights, should be called #6, with the new joint coming in at #7, though both are still called #3. And the menu in Aurora was already a historical document, the core of it more or less unchanged from the '20s and representing all the best food memories of Sam Armatas.
It's also voluminous, running eight pages of small type, with specials and sides and extras crammed into every corner of each page. There are breakfast specials (ten of them, including a solid steak and eggs for around six bucks, and a simple eggs, home fries and toast plate for half that); skillet breakfasts; fifteen kinds of burgers (most notably the only green-chile cheeseburger capable of approaching the grandeur of America's best green-chile cheeseburger -- the one served at the Owl Bar in San Antonio, New Mexico); 21 different breakfast burritos (with the corned-beef hash, chorizo and onion, and ham, bacon, sausage and gyro meat Supreme varieties leading the pack, but all served crisp 'round the edges from being rolled on the flat grill); and a full page of nothing but "Mr. Sam's Mexi-Rado grub" -- fajitas and tacos and enchiladas that all come out tasting not exactly Mexican, but more like Mexican food as imagined by some New York City kid, translated to a professional kitchen and cooked by guys who probably know better than to call any of this food Mexican without winking first.
Sam's also makes the town's best chili-cheese dogs -- huge, messy, disgusting, delicious monstrosities capable of provoking terror in dieters, children and women of delicate constitution, and requiring a knife, fork and six napkins to eat -- because the best chili-cheese dogs (and arguably the best hotdogs, period) come from New York. In particular, from Coney Island. The red chili on these dogs is Cincinnati chili-with-an-i -- the only kind I knew existed before moving out West -- meaning meaty con carne of the sort that was once cooked in trash cans over a low fire for a week at a time. In contrast, the house green is straight Colorado: not too easy but not too hot, either, and thick enough to eat with a fork.
Over the years, the simplicity of Sam's original Coney Island genius has been added to, like some sprawling house gone kinky with additions that don't quite sit level. In the center of the menu are all the plates Sam offered back in the day when a man could get punched in the mouth and called a sissy for asking for butter lettuce on his burger or mixed fruit instead of fries. Pancake sandwiches, hamburger steaks, liver and onions. These diner mainstays are surrounded by yogurt, granola and banana breakfasts, vegetarian burritos and fish tacos, and while for a time this construction bugged me -- when the homesick kid inside me wanted nothing more than a place out West that felt completely like the places he'd known back East -- after sitting down at the Number 3 Hammer Bar at the back of the new/old #3 and thinking about it, I now get how this Sam's is home. It's just not my home. Not yet, anyhow.
Sam's represents the collective history of three generations of one Denver restaurant family -- of the Armatas men, their wives, their kids, all sketched out in menu form, told by way of chili dogs and cheeseburgers, breakfast burritos, green-chile sauce and the best caramel-vanilla milkshake I've ever tasted. Sam's is home to the children and grandchildren of one guy from Greece, by way of New York and Coney Island, full of all the flavors of all the years and places between here and there, then and now.
You can trace the history not just in the menu, but through the pictures hanging on the walls -- posterized blow-ups of faded black-and-white snapshots from the days when Sam's was young. Cooks in shirtsleeves, aprons and ties. Formica counters and bright rails fronting a short-order galley kitchen. Men in fedoras and long raincoats staring back out of history, square-jawed, serious, their big hands wrapped around gleaming white coffee mugs. The juxtaposition of these snaps with the clean and well-lighted place that Sam's is today can be strange. While there's a part of me that wants to see this Sam's, today's Sam's, in the same kind of black and white -- slumping at the counter in a felt hat and a jacket, pack of Luckys in my shirt pocket and a Racing Form in my fist -- there's another part that can't make the mental leap between this place and that one. In those pictures are the diners I've been looking for ever since coming out West myself, populated by younger versions of the men who still sit at those counters back in Buffalo, Cleveland, Rochester, Philadelphia and New York, but the walls on which they hang are bright and clean and new. Everything about the new Sam's gleams, and though I certainly can't hold cleanliness or newness against a place, I do.
Twenty more years, maybe. That's all Sam's needs. A decent breaking-in period for any real diner. Come to think of it, that's a pretty good breaking-in period for a transplant Westerner, too. Maybe by then, Sam's and I will both feel at home.
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