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Cleveland has no shortage of delicious barbecue restaurants. But most of them wouldn't exist without the ingenuity and good taste of the Williams family, Mississippi natives who landed here in the 1960s.
Lemaud Williams, who was working as a dishwasher at the time, and his four brothers opened the original restaurant after growing up absorbing Southern-style barbecue — and a family-secret special sauce with a fiery kick.
"Our grandfather, A.J. Snowden, used to throw a lot of barbecue picnics in Tougaloo, Mississippi, where we were born," Lemaud told The Plain Dealer in 2006. "As far as I know, he never wrote anything down. I assume our recipe just came out of the bloodstream, down the pipe."
Lemaud Williams passed away in 2013, but his legacy lives on: Hot Sauce Williams is still a family-owned joint, run by the next generation of Williams barbecue aficionados.
Hot Sauce Williams has been a local institution since 1964. Believe it or not, the establishment originally had no name, until customers took it upon themselves to christen the space, by combining the family's last name with one of the eatery's signature ingredients.
Over the years, Hot Sauce Williams has ably weathered challenges — the restaurant's original location in the Hough neighborhood emerged unscathed from the 1966 riots — and changing food trends, by maintaining a familial vibe.
That goes a long way to explain its celeb fans (among them, Mike Tyson and former Indian Kenny Lofton) and success at rib cook-offs. Plus, grillmasters still tend to ribs, backyard barbecue-style, in the parking lot.
Although Hot Sauce Williams closed its long-time Carnegie Avenue location in May 2018, there are still two locations left in town, on 3770 Lee Road and 12310 Superior Avenue. The restaurant's appearances on Man Vs. Food, The Food Network's The Best Thing I Ever Ate and No Reservations continue to draw in new diners.
The secret to the restaurant's success stems first from its extensive, soul food-inspired menu. Of course, you can order up meaty slabs of award-winning ribs, tasty fried or baked chicken, and a heaping order of shrimp or a fish sandwich. But Hot Sauce Williams also dishes up Southern favorites such as catfish, fried okra and greens, and sells its signature barbecue sauce by the bottle.
And, of course, Hot Sauce Williams is most famous for its Polish Boy, a Cleveland-born delicacy that's tailor-made for the city's hearty appetites.
The sandwich starts with a hefty, plump kielbasa plopped down on a hot dog bun. Next comes a pile of French fries, a generous dollop of coleslaw and their signature barbecue sauce. Smash it all together, and it's a belly-busting delight. For an even bigger meal, try the Polish Girl, which adds pork shoulder to the toppings.