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SOUL FOOD MN | Lee's & Dee's Barbeque Express: From the back of a station wagon to a St. Paul institution
Lee’s & Dee’s Barbeque Express in St. Paul is a true family operation and is now a second generation business, having been handed over from namesakes Lee and Dee to daughters Linda Williams and Vickie Nash. The original business was born from founder Lee piling coolers of full wings and ribs into the back of his station wagon to feed workers during lunch breaks and bar-goers late at night. Lee and his wife Dee opened their traditional southern restaurant in the Summit-University neighborhood 22 years ago and, it has become a popular spot for people in search of authentic southern food.
While visiting the restaurant during the lunch hour, before the busier dinner rush started, I looked over the whiteboard menu and landed on some dishes I knew I had to try. While the restaurant is known for its barbeque, Lee's & Dee's dishes are definitely soulful. When I asked owner Linda Williams what her definition of soul food was, she replied, greens, pinto beans, and cornbread—in other words, Southern food.
The family’s Mississippi roots are on display in their fried catfish, which is tender and meaty and covered in lightly seasoned crunchy cornmeal. Though the greens are served without the juice, which I love to mop up with a piece of cornbread, they have a good amount of smoky, slow cooked flavor, and are made with smoked turkey for those who abstain from pork. The mac and cheese is rich and extra-creamy, with a definite real dairy flavor coming through. I sampled the banana pudding from the rotating dessert menu; just like at my favorite bodegas in Brooklyn, the pudding is made with fresh banana slices and Nilla wafers.
I was lucky enough to get a moment to talk with Lee, who, although retired, still comes in from time to time to lend a hand and man the smoker. He told me the ribs are smoked for three and a half hours before being slathered in their own barbeque sauce. The ribs have a light bark, the part that browns and gets a little crunchy from the smoking, on the outside; and a juicy, fall-off-the-bone interior. The sauce is sweet and complements the richness of the meat.
In the Twin Cities, soul food restaurants are often, sadly, short-lived, but Lee’s & Dee’s has been a community staple and meeting point for over 20 years. It's a place that people from surrounding states come to visit, and that celebrities like Ice T, Don King, and Ice Cube have come to know on their visits to the Northstar State. This family business is poised to be around for at least another 20 years.
©2013 Cheo Smith (text) and Rebecca McDonald (photos)