The three Armatas brothers — Patrick, Sam and Alex — tried really hard to avoid going into the family business.
Their grandfather, an illiterate Greek immigrant named Sam Armatas, opened a string of Coney Island hot dog joints in Denver starting in the 1920s.
Only Sam’s No. 3 lasted into the late 1960s operated by Sam’s son, Spero Armatas. The tiny place with 19 stools had a grill in the front window that vented to the sidewalk. “When business was slow Sam would tell the cook to throw some onions on the grill,” Patrick Armatas said. “The smell would attract customers.”
Spero Armatas then opened Newbarry’s Restaurant in Denver and the three brothers had to help at the restaurant.
After that experience, Patrick said, “when we had the opportunity, we all went right off to college.”
Alex was studying art while Sam took classes in theater. “I studied studio art — I wanted to teach — with a minor in religion,” Patrick said. He had even left Colorado and was living in Minnesota in 1997.
“I was working as a waiter but I was tired of working for other people,” he said. Then came the fateful call in 1997.
“My brothers said they were thinking about opening a restaurant and did I want to be part of it,” Patrick said, admitting that it almost seemed inevitable.
It was only natural to locate it in Aurora, he said, because that’s where the boys grew up. All three are Overland High School graduates.
“Where we lived as kids is actually just down the street from where the restaurant is now,” Patrick said as he sat at a table at Sam’s No. 3 in Aurora, located in a former Coco’s Restaurant he remembers walking past as a kid.
They finally launched Sam’s No. 3 in 1998. “It was hard at first — really slow for the first year. We weren’t exactly good,” he said.
The diner hit its stride after about a year, and has developed a loyal clientele for a huge all-day menu.
“Our menu pays homage to the food our grandfather served but it also updates and expands it,” he said.
The Greek influence is clear in dishes like pork souvlakia and eggs with feta, and Sam’s continues the American diner tradition with such classics as biscuits and gravy, meatloaf and gravy, barbecue spare ribs, New York strip steak, breakfast skillets, waffles and a pecan cinna-monster roll.
The strong Mexican menu presence comes surprisingly from their very Greek dad.
“In the 1980s he insisted on serving a big breakfast burrito at Newbarry’s. The staff thought nobody would order them,” Patrick said, because few non-Mexican eateries were serving breakfast burritos at the time.
While Sam’s No. 3 offers huevos rancheros, chile rellenos and fish tacos, the major attractions are the 22 varieties of breakfast burritos doused with the cafe’s famous “killer” green chile sauce. The $13.99 Poppa’s Big-As-A-House Burrito encloses six eggs, bacon, ham, sausage, gyro meat cheeses and veggies.
They still serve hot dogs and other entrees smothered with their grandfather’s Coney Island chili sauce made with finely ground beef in a sweet-ish tomato sauce seasoned with a hint of cinnamon and allspice that’s reminiscent of the red sauce served on the classic Greek pasta dish, pastitsio. “We still make it from the same recipe. It’s got a slight sweetness with a little heat,” Patrick said.
He admits that his grandfather might be surprised if he walked into Sam’s No. 3 today. “For one thing, we’ve got a full bar and an espresso bar,“ he said. Ales from Dry Dock Brewing are on tap.
The menu includes such non-traditional items as mac-n-cheese dip with chorizo and green chile and a milkshake that incorporates a whole wedge of pie. The famous green chile is now made with masa (corn flour) so it’s gluten-free and there’s a non-pork vegetarian version available. A new menu will show which items are gluten- or dairy-free. “We need to lean toward where the customers are eating,” Patrick said.
“Aurora now has a large group of foodies. Fifteen years ago people thought that Olive Garden was fine Italian cuisine. Now they actually want to find authentic cooking,” he said.
In 2005, the second Sam’s No. 3 opened in downtown Denver not far from the location of the original Sam’s No. 3. In 2013 the brothers plan on opening the third Sam’s No. 3 in the former Sam Taylor Barbecue space in Glendale. In fact, the only dip in this slow-and-steady success story was Victory, the sit-down eatery the trio opened next door to the Denver Sam’s No. 3 that never attracted a big enough customer base.
After all these years, Patrick said that he and his brothers still get along. “I think they work harder than me and they agree,” he said. “We’ve made mistakes and learned.”
Spero Armatas still operates Newbarry’s Restaurant, the all-day coffee shop/diner he opened in 1967, and there’s another generation of Armatas kids coming along.
Will the family’s restaurant lineage go another generation?
“My daughter told me she wants to take over the restaurant some day,” Patrick said. “She’s 9 and she also wants to be a veterinarian and an astronaut at the same time.”
Sam’s No. 3 Kickin’ Green Chile
25 fresh Anaheim green chiles or 5 (4 ½-ounce) cans green chiles
3 sticks (12 ounces) butter or margarine, plus more for sauteing pork
3 pounds pork, cut into ½-inch cubes
2 large white onions, cut into ½-inch dice
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon salt
1 ¾ teaspoons ground black pepper
1 ¾ tablespoons ground dry mustard powder
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons granulated garlic
6 large tomatoes, cut into ½-inch dice
2 (14 ½-ounce) cans diced tomatoes
3 fresh jalapenos, diced, optional for added heat
1 cup flour
If roasting your own chiles: Preheat an outdoor grill to high. Place the Anaheim chiles on the grill and cook, turning to cook evenly, until the skins blister and blacken. Remove from the grill and place in a plastic bag. Seal the bag and let the chiles stand for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the skin, stems and seeds and chop into 1/4-inch pieces.
Heat some butter in a large pot and add the cubed pork. Cook about 20 minutes, and then add onions and spices. Cook on low heat, stirring occasionally. When the pork has cooked through, add the fresh tomatoes, canned tomatoes, green chiles and jalapenos, if using. Stir occasionally.
After five minutes, add about 8 cups water. Bring to a low boil. Stir occasionally. Increase the heat and bring the chile to a rolling or high boil. In separate pan over medium heat make roux by melting butter or margarine and whisk in the flour, stirring until creamy. (This recipe can be made gluten-free by substituting masa (corn flour) for the wheat flour.)
Slowly add the roux to the chile, stirring constantly, and shut off the heat. Continue to stir so that the roux is evenly distributed. (Roux amount can be adjusted depending on desired consistency or thickness.) Let stand 10 to 15 minutes. Stir, taste and adjust seasonings if needed.
• Sam’s No. 3
1500 Curtis St., Denver
2580 S. Havana St., Aurora