The world of urban barbecue lost a superstar, although I suspect not a lot of folk beyond inner-city Cleveland, nor those outside the national circle of “meat men” ever heard of him. For Lemaud Williams, 73, was no Gordon Ramsey, Marcus Samuelsson or Michael Symon. Only among pure rib lovers might the name make a good Jeopardy question: "Who owned the best barbecue joint in the Midwest?"
Maybe even then no one would come up with Williams’ full name, but black folk old and young surely heard of his rib restaurant. From East Oakland to the Lower East Side of New York City, the restauraunt named “Hot Sauce Williams” stood for barbecue to anybody who spent more than three days on the East Side of Cleveland. The place’s reputation for ribs ranks right up there with Gates and Sons Bar-B-Q or Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City, the Fox Brothers BBQ in Atlanta and Central BBQ in Memphis.
In some people’s minds, that’s hardly an extraordinary accomplishment. It’s not as if Williams, who died last week of a stroke, invented a cure for sickle cell or made a major breakthrough in solar power. No, Lemaud Williams was a meat man, someone who grilled pork for a living with the same excellence that Michael Jordan shot a basketball or Emmitt Smith ran a football. To the thousands of people that his signature restaurant on the city’s East Side served the past five decades, they acknowledged that singular tribute. I doubt you demean a man in death when you tell the world he made the best damn ribs on the planet.
Still, it seems immodest to call Williams a meat man in his obituary and leave it there. It would be like calling Floyd Mayweather a brawler or Gordon Parks a photog.
In his world, Williams was every bit the artist Parks was. His canvas, however, happened to be the gigantic black smoker that stood outside his purple-and-pink flagship restaurant. His ribs got plenty of culinary love from the Travel Channel and the Food Network. Drive past the place on Carnegie Avenue and East 79th Street most afternoons, and his ribs fill the air with smells that are simply intoxicating. Hot Sauce’s pork ribs taste as if God himself has put His foot in them. You haven’t had great barbecue till you’ve bitten into a shoulder sandwich that Williams soaked in his signature sauce.
In the insular world of meat men, Williams cultivated a barbecue style that was pure his. A big talker, he often told people he cooked pork ribs slowly, basted them in his secret vinegar mix and finished them in a tomato sauce. His recipe worked.
At countless cook-offs in Ohio and elsewhere around the country, his salty pork ribs came away with trophies and blue ribbons. To describe their meaty deliciousness would be like trying to describe the indescribable. Why bother? Just call the experience of eating his ribs incredible and say no more.
But in some ways, Hot Sauce Williams didn’t just lose its patriarch; it lost its connection with its Mississippi roots. Barbecue isn’t an urban creation, though I wouldn’t tell that to people who make Slows Bar-B-Q in Detroit a regular stop. But ask any meat men, and he’ll tell you that while the Deep South might have started the barbecue craze, it is in the Heartlands and the Rust Belt that earned barbecue its TV profile and its reputation as good eats.
Under Williams, Hot Sauce Williams did so better than most. His restaurant, little more than a dive, was long the hangout for old-school celebrities like Bill Clinton, Don King, Mike Tyson and even Otis Redding back before the days of hip hop and iPads. No one went there for the ambience; they went for the finger-lickin’ good ribs.
Black folks have always had a love affair with ribs – pork ribs, to be precise. They are finicky about them, too. Maybe that’s why Hot Sauce Williams survived all the competition from nearby Subway, Pizza Hut and Burger King.
Yet maybe Hot Sauce Williams survived because like so many restaurants with roots planted in the black community, the place had something none of the newer eateries that sprouted up around it had: an owner who thrived because he did something better than anybody else.