He was "Bubba" to family and "Mr. Lee" to others, but to legions of barbecue-loving diners in St. Paul, Lee Claudie Smith was the man with a firm hand on the smoker at Lee and Dee's Bar-B-Que Express, a neighborhood joint featuring cornmeal-battered catfish and barbecue ribs.

"The barbecue was my dad's," said daughter Vickie Nash. "That was all my pop's."

A longtime fixture in St. Paul's Summit-University neighborhood, Smith died Feb. 24 at age 67.

Customers like Roy W. Magnuson, a lifelong St. Paul resident and a Como Park High School teacher, said the spot Smith ran with his wife, Doretha, was uncommonly good.

It was one of those places that remained a destination for people long after they had moved out of the neighborhood, he said.

"It was always good."

Smith was born March 11, 1949, in Tallahatchie County, Miss., according to his family. He grew up nearby in Friars Point, a once-thriving port town that hugs the Mississippi River. School sweethearts, Lee and Doretha married July 13, 1965. Four years later, they set out for Minnesota, following a relative who had moved north.

Smith's first job was at Pedro's Luggage and Briefcase Center, a downtown St. Paul landmark that closed in 2008. He repaired luggage, belts and shoes by day, and supplemented his income on the weekends with an early version of today's food trucks, selling smoked ribs and chicken wings from the back of a station wagon.

Using recipes that he and Doretha came up with, Smith built a following for his food and later opened the restaurant on a quiet corner of N. Victoria Street in the 1980s. With a menu of flavorful Southern cooking — catfish, Bubba's beans, pork sandwiches, ribs and cornbread — the restaurant picked up a loyal customer base.

The unpretentious spot had seating for about 30 but it never got fancy. City Pages crowned it the best barbecue in 2008, writing Lee and Dee's had turned out "consistently excellent barbecue for 15 years" at that point.

Former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer was a regular, and celebrity patrons, such as rapper and actor Ice Cube, weren't uncommon.

"Don King was so nice," said Nash, recalling the high-profile boxing promoter. "He left my mom a $400 tip."

A few years ago, Smith turned the business over to his daughters; grandchildren also worked there, doing dishes or serving as extra cooks. Smith still checked in but spent most of his time out front, greeting diners and neighbors. Retirement gave him more time to cheer for the Minnesota Vikings and watch World Wrestling Entertainment matches with his children and grandchildren.

He took care not only of his kids and grandkids, but kids who weren't related, said Jarria Robinson, his daughter-in-law. "He took in everybody. Especially if you were someone who didn't have any food or no money to purchase food. He would definitely feed you from the restaurant out of the kindness of his heart."

After 27 years in business, Lee and Dee's closed last year, said Nash. Doretha hasn't been speaking to people since Smith's death.

"He is the love of her life," Nash said. "My dad was her best friend from the time they were in grade school up until now."

Smith was preceded in death by his parents, Claudie and Pearlie; his son, Victor; and his sister, Claudie Mae. In addition to his wife and his daughter Vickie, he is survived by his children, Linda Williams, Jessie Williams, Danny Williams, Edbert Williams and Lee Williams, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Services have been held.

Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747