I didn't love Sam's No. 3 the first time I visited nearly eighteen years ago. Or the second time. Or even the third. It was a favorite of my then-partner's family, though, so I kept tagging along, eating my way around the sixteen-page menu filled with more than a hundred items and becoming familiar with the waitstaff at the Aurora location, many of whom had been working there since that location opened in 1998, seven decades after the chain got its start in downtown Denver. Then I tried the Tex Mex Chili, and everything changed.
The Armatas family has a long history in Denver, one that's explained right on the cover of the massive Sam's No. 3 menu (which is accessed via a QR code these days) and in more depth in a timeline on its website
that matches the family history with world events: Sam Armatas, a Greek immigrant, opened the original Sam's No. 3 at 1527 Curtis Street in 1927, the same year that construction began on Mount Rushmore.
That was the third location of a small chain of Sam's diners run by Armatas and his business partner, Sam Selavenitis. Sam's No. 4 was added in 1929, and a spot called Sam's Coney Island opened in 1930. "I asked him why that one was named that, and he said he was tired of numbers," says Spero Armatas of his late father. When the Sam's partnership dissolved in 1931, Sam Armatas kept Sam's No. 3. "Thankfully, No. 3 survived the Depression," Spero says of the business, which made a few moves around Curtis Street over the years.
In 1998, the current Sam's ownership group took shape, bringing together Spero and his sons Sam, Patrick and Alex, who opened Sam's No. 3 on Havana Street in Aurora that year. In 2003, they returned Sam's No. 3 to downtown, at a Curtis Street location across the street from where the original had opened seventy years earlier. A third Sam's debuted in Glendale in 2013.
Sam's No. 3 in Glendale was added in 2013.
The basics of the family's story have been recounted dozens of times in Westword
and other publications, as well as on television shows that have featured the popular diner. But in the wake of losing staples such as the Breakfast King, Tom's Diner and the Denver Diner, now seems like the right time to pay homage to the diner that's become my comfort place over the years.
Sam's is widely known for its massive breakfast burritos, and has been a frequent presence on our annual list of the best green chile
in Denver. But not this year. While its Kickin' Pork Green Chili is Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives
famous (you can even find the recipe for it on the
website), it's the bowl of Tex Mex Chili that still reigns supreme for me. And Spero agrees. "That's what I get," he affirms when I tell him it's my go-to.
The Tex Mex bowl is a combination of Sam's green chile (which is also available in a vegetarian version) and the unsung hero of this spot, the beanless red chili. The combo is served over pinto beans (which I omit), with cheese and diced onion on top and a tortilla on the side.
The recipe for the red chili, which is made with ground beef, is the same one that's been used since the original Sam's opened. "My dad developed that recipe," Spero notes. For decades, red chili was the only chili at Sam's. "In the old days, we served 500 to 550 bowls a day, besides putting it on hamburgers and hot dogs and other things," he adds. But when green chile began growing in popularity, it was added to Sam's mix of classic diner fare and Greek specialties, along with a selection of other Mexican dishes. Sam's now goes through 50 gallons of green chile a day among its three locations.
Tex Mex Chili is a must-order.
While I rarely get to return to the same place more than once or twice these days as I try to keep up with Denver's ever-changing dining scene, there are a handful of spots that are my longtime go-tos, and Sam's is the one I still visit most frequently. It's where I went to celebrate when I got the job as Westword
's food and drink editor a year and a half ago, and where I went on a recent Sunday to nurse a hangover with one of Sam's tall mimosas made with a generous pour of bubbles.
Over my countless visits, I've amassed a list of go-to orders (and sections of the massive menu to avoid). Once, a Tinder date who knew I was a regular asked for tips about what to order. I shared my usual rundown and advised him to skip the burgers — there are far better options, I told him. He listened intently and ordered a burger anyway. When he didn't enjoy it, he spent the last half of the date complaining about Sam's. We never went out again.
That night, I'd had my most common order: the can't-fail bowl of Tex Mex and salad combo, opting for the Wedge, which comes loaded with plenty of bacon and blue cheese crumbles and my favorite addition: two crisp onion rings held on by toothpicks. My daughter prefers the French toast, but we always get a heaping plate of chili cheese tots (half red for me, half green for her) to split.
The cheese curds are the ideal way to start a meal.
Many of my other favorites can be found in the Original Coney Island Specials section of the menu, which stars the red chili. There's the Coney Hamburger Steak, a half-pound patty smothered in chili and cheddar, served with home fries (ask for them extra crispy), sliced tomatoes, pickles and Texas toast. When I'm more indecisive, the Cheesy One of Each is a favorite — a chili cheese Coney Dog (split and griddled) with a quarter-pound Curtis Street Burger (the sole exception to my burger rule here) topped with chili, American cheese, mustard and onion.
The most filling red chili dish, though (and my favorite for a hangover cure), is the Trailblazer Works. Once called the Ram, it's a huge plate of home fries covered in chili, cheese and onions, topped with two eggs any way you like them and a side of toast for just over $10.
Although chili is involved in most of my go-tos, there are a couple of exceptions. Battered and fried cheese curds are a crowd-pleasing starter; here they're served with marinara, but a side of ranch doused with hot sauce is a smart addition. And because Sam's has seen it all when it comes to custom orders, you can even get a little crazy and ask to add those curds inside a burrito, or anything else your gluttonous heart desires.
The Meatloaf Melt is better than a burger.
Sandwich classics like the club or BLT (listed on the menu with five Bs) are solid, but the Meatloaf Melt is the stuff of comfort-food dreams. It eats more like a huge, thick burger (and tends to be juicier than the actual burgers, which is why I skip those) and is loaded with melted cheddar, ranch and barbecue sauce on sourdough bread. Like many of the entrees at Sam's, it comes with your choice of eleven side options. While the mac and cheese is admittedly not the best in town, it's a must with the Meatloaf Melt.
If you want to pack in some veggies with your meal, don't sleep on the Village Salad as a side. This simple combo of cucumbers, tomatoes and feta with a vinaigrette is a nod to the Armatas family's Greek roots. The large, entree-size Greek Salad is a winner, too, as is the gyro in a grilled pita.
"I just love breakfast," Spero says of his most frequent order beside the Tex Mex Chili. "It's probably the best comfort food. I love our Hollandaise, and I love our fresh fruit."
No matter what anyone orders, however, one thing is always true: Every person leaves Sam's No. 3 completely stuffed. But if I did have room for a dessert, it would be one of the pie or cake shakes.
Yes, Sam's will load any available flavor of pie or cake into ice cream and blend it up — because at Sam's, all your diner food dreams can come true.