I didn’t like Sam’s No. 3 the first time I visited almost eighteen years ago. Or the second time. Or even the third. It was a favorite of my then partner’s family, so I kept following along, perusing the sixteen-page menu filled with over a hundred items, and familiarizing myself with the servers at the Aurora location, many of whom had worked there since the establishment opened in 1998, seven decades after the chain launched in downtown Denver. Then I tried Tex Mex Chili, and everything changed.
The Armatas family has a long history in Denver, one that’s explained right on the cover of Sam’s No. 3’s massive menu (which is accessible via QR code these days) and more in-depth in a timeline on his website which matches the family’s history with world events: Sam Armatas, a Greek immigrant, opened the first Sam’s No. 3 at 1527 Curtis Street in 1927, the same year construction began on Mount Rushmore.
It was the third location of a small chain of Sam’s restaurants run by Armatas and his business partner, Sam Selavenitis. Sam’s No. 4 was added in 1929 and a place called Sam’s Coney Island opened in 1930. “I asked him why this one was called that, and he said he had had enough of the numbers” , explains Spero Armatas about his late father. When Sam’s partnership dissolved in 1931, Sam Armatas retained Sam’s Number 3. “Fortunately, Number 3 survived the Depression,” Spero says of the company, which made some moves around of Curtis Street over the years.
In 1998, Sam’s current 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 brought Sam’s No. 3 back downtown, to a location on Curtis Street across from where the original had opened seventy years earlier. A third Sam’s debuted at Glendale in 2013.
The foundations of the family story have been told dozens of times in Westword and other publications, as well as on TV shows that have featured the popular restaurant. But after losing staples such as the Breakfast King, Tom’s Diner and Denver Diner, now seems like a good time to pay homage to the restaurant that has become my place of comfort over the years.
Sam’s is widely known for its huge breakfast burritos and frequently features on our annual list of Denver’s Best Green Chilies. But not this year. While his kickin’ pork green pepper is Diners, drive-ins and dives famous (you can even find the recipe on the Food Network website), it’s the Chili Tex Mex bowl that still reigns supreme for me. And Spero agrees. “That’s what I get,” he says when I tell him it’s my favorite.
The Tex Mex bowl is a combination of Sam’s green chili (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’m omitting), with cheese and diced onions on top and a tortilla on the side.
The recipe for the chili pepper, made with ground beef, is the same one used since the opening of the original Sam’s. “My dad developed this recipe,” notes Spero. For decades, red pepper was the only pepper at Sam’s. -he. But when green chili began to gain popularity, it was added to Sam’s mix of classic dishes and Greek specialties, as well as a selection of other Mexican dishes. Sam now uses 50 gallons of green chili a day between his three locations.
Although I rarely return to the same place more than once or twice these days as I try to keep up with Denver’s ever-changing food scene, there are a handful of places that are my longtime favorites. , and Sam’s is the one I always visit most often. That’s where I went to celebrate when I got the job Westword‘s food and drink editor a year and a half ago, and where I went on a recent Sunday to cure a hangover with one of Sam’s large mimosas made with a generous pour of bubbles.
Over my countless visits, I’ve amassed a list of must-have commands (and sections of the massive menu to avoid). Once, a Tinder date who knew I was a regular asked me for advice on what to order. I shared my usual recap and advised him to skip the burgers – there are much better options, I told him. He listened carefully and ordered a burger anyway. When he didn’t like it, he spent the last half of the date complaining about Sam. We never went out again.
That night, I had my most common order: the must-have Tex Mex bowl and salad combo, opting for the Wedge, which has lots of bacon bits and blue cheese and my favorite addition: two onions. crispy rings held by toothpicks. My daughter prefers French toast, but we always have a plate full of chili cheeses (half red for me, half green for her) to share.
Many of my other favorites can be found in the Original Coney Island Specials section of the menu, which features red chili. There’s the Coney Hamburger Steak, a half-pound patty covered in chili and cheddar, served with house fries (ask for them extra crispy), sliced tomatoes, pickles, and Texan toast. When I’m more indecisive, the Cheesy One of Each is a favorite – a Coney Dog chili cheese (split and grilled) with a quarter-pound Curtis Street Burger (the only exception to my burger rule here) topped with chili , American cheese , mustard and onion.
The heartiest 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 homemade fries smothered in chili, cheese and onions, topped with two eggs however you like them and a toast for just over $10.
Although chili is involved in most of my go-tos, there are a few exceptions. Beaten and fried cheese curds are a crowd-pleaser; here they’re served with marinara, but a side of ranch drizzled with hot sauce is a smart addition. And because Sam’s has seen it all when it comes to custom orders, you can even go a little crazy and ask to add these curds to a burrito, or whatever your sweet tooth desires.
Sandwich classics like the club or BLT (listed on the menu with five Bs) are solid, but the Meatloaf Melt is the stuff of comforting dreams. It eats more like a huge, thick burger (and tends to be juicier than actual burgers, which is why I skip them) and is loaded with melted cheddar, ranch, and BBQ sauce on sourdough bread. Like many entrees at Sam’s, it comes with your choice of eleven side dish options. While the mac and cheese may not be the best in town, it’s a must along with the Meatloaf Melt.
If you want to pack veggies with your meal, don’t sleep on the side village salad. This simple combo of cucumbers, tomatoes and feta with a vinaigrette is a nod to the Greek roots of the Armatas family. The large Greek salad as a starter is also a winner, as is the gyro in a grilled pita.
“I love breakfast,” Spero says of his most frequent order next to Tex Mex Chili. “It’s probably the best comfort food. I love our Hollandaise and I love our fresh fruit.”
No matter what someone orders, however, one thing is always true: everyone leaves Sam’s Number 3 completely drunk. But if I had room for a dessert, it would be a pie or a smoothie.
Yes, Sam’s will add any available pie or cake flavor into the ice cream and mix it in – because at Sam’s, all your dining dreams can come true.