It finally happened. I made it to Lee’s Barbecue. I’ve been hearing about this Fillmore joint for years and years. The only problem was , for a long time I didn’t know where it was… it was like a legendary place that might not actually exist. Then, when I finally discovered where it was, it never looked open. So today, when I drove past and saw a tiny flickering ‘open’ sign in the front window, I knew it was my lucky day. I immediately grabbed my buddy who was just down the street and together we walked right in.
There in front of us, cooking his heart out was the one and only Lee. After placing an order for a barbecue rib sandwich (yours truly) and a pork shoulder sandwich (my buddy), we began to chat with Lee, who was more than happy to talk while he tended to his kitchen fortress, armed with stoves, pot and pans, and a BBQ pit.
Pretty soon, we were no longer asking questions – Lee began reminiscing about glory days of the business, when the likes of Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas would come in. All of the Bills players, from that day, used to support Lee apparently. Before that, it was the Bethlehem Steel workers that flooded the place with business. “I opened this place on November 18, 1962,” said Lee, whose last name happens to be Smith. “There wasn’t an empty place on the street. When I opened, there were eight or ten other barbecue places on the street, and they all told me that they would run me out of business. I was in my 20s. Now they are all gone, and you know what I say? Take care of your own business. Since opening, I’ve replaced my barbecue pit 11 times. This spring will be the twelfth time… that should tell you how much barbecuing I’ve done over the years.
Once Lee heard that my buddy (Joel Capizzi – photo right) knew a couple of the Bills players, we couldn’t get him off the subject. “I went to the first game at the Rock Pile,” he said, looking off in the distance. “Then, when they moved to Orchard Park, I bought an RV and would take 16 of my friends to the game. Man, was that was a lot of fun. I didn’t go to one game last year. I don’t hunt any more either. But I fish!”
Lee told us about a couple of the Bills players’ traits that I won’t repeat (all in good fun). The guy is super good natured, and should be awarded a gold medal for his longevity on the street – over 50 years… not to mention his heavenly barbecue! Aside from being a good storyteller, he’s also a damned good hand when it comes to barbecue. I now know this because after leaving, I ate my entire meal in the car (there is no indoor seating – take-out only). My barbecue rib sandwich was not actually a sandwich – it was a ton of succulent ribs, spread across a bed of coleslaw. I also got a large container of potato salad (they were out of the mac and cheese). The meal came with two slices of white bread.
Eating this barbecue in my car was probably not the best idea. Before long my fingers were covered with sauce, the container was flipping over, and I had a small mess on hands. But it was worth it – I was super hungry and I refused to wait to get home. In the end, it was the best decision. Despite the mess, the food was stupendous. The meat literally fell off the bone – it was that tender. It was perfectly sauced too. Plus, there was a ton of meat on the bones, which is not a given with most barbecue places. The meat was uncommonly good, especially when eaten with the coleslaw. His vinegar based sauce is a secret – it’s the same sauce that he first started with all that time ago. I have since learned that he also offers a hot version, which my friend opted for on his pork shoulder. And the potato salad was one of the best that I ever tried. I almost ate the entire container in one sitting. The two slices of white bread? I waited until I got home, buttered them up and ate those too.
Let me tell you, after hearing about this place for the better part of a lifetime, I am so happy that it lived up to my expectations. Lee’s is an original. His food is finger lickin’ good. And he’s a legend on the East Side. As I sat in the car eating, I saw a steady stream of customers pull up to order barbecue. Holy smokes. While it might not be like the good ‘ol steel days, it appears as if Lee is fending for himself rather well.
If I were you, I would make the trip to Lee’s sooner rather than later. When it comes to barbecue in Buffalo, Lee’s is the real deal.
Lee’s Barbecue | 1269 Fillmore Avenue | Buffalo, NY 14211 | (716) 896-8887 | Facebook