Meet America’s Malayali BBQ Master

Malayali flavours meet the meaty goodness of Texas-style barbecue in the unlikely setting of Buffalo, NY.

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A meal at Southern Junction BBQ leaves many tempting options. On this tasting platter (right) fatty slivers of brisket are nestled next to the silky strands of barbacurry and a square of buttery cardamon cornbread. Smoked chicken tikka, a kolache, and pickled onions crowd the sides; Chef Ryan Fernandes gazes upon this generous BBQ tasting platter (left). Photos by: Julian Manning

Seeking out good barbecue in America often warrants a good drive, especially if you have a yen to relish regional styles. There’s nothing like hunting the horizons of your dashboard along highways and backroads for the ashy tendrils of post oak smoulder; the scents of local specialities sashaying out of far-flung smokestacks. In 2020, alone, I travelled thousands of miles to feast on piquant Memphis ribs and succulent North Carolina whole-hog cooking, smoked chicken drizzled with Alabama white sauce, chopped mutton sandwiches in Kentucky, and the beloved brisket of Texas.

On my 2021 foray for barbecue fixins, I was once again hitting the road for America’s regional chow, but the style I was in search of was exclusive to only one smokehouse in the country—barbecue made with a mix of Malayali and Texan techniques and flavours. I had extended a business trip to the East Coast into a big bet, renting a car and driving eight hours to Buffalo, NY to eat at Southern Junction Barbecue on the edge of the Canadian border. Having split my life between the American South and South India, travelling to Ernakulam for tapioca and fish head curry is just as important to me as journeying to El Paso for a plate of barbecue. And this impromptu road trip was worth the chance to find out if the chef behind this outlier operation could truly meld the magic of both cuisines into his cooking.

Meet America’s Malayali Bbq Master

Tasty barbacurry kolache, the first of its kind. Photo by: Julian Manning

But Buffalo made no sense to me as a barbecue destination. Though I kept my foot on the pedal, I felt like my journey for Indo-Texan southern cooking this far north might be as fruitful as driving to Anchorage, Alaska for avial or ghee roast. Little did I know, I was about to taste some of the best barbecue in America: a place where Kerala beef fry meets barbacoa, and the cornbread wafts the fragrance of cardamom in a warm whisper of homestyle cooking.

Biryani and Brisket

Ryan Fernandez moved from Kerala to Texas in the ninth grade. Even though English was his first language, you could say he didn’t speak ‘Merican’ when he arrived in Dallas. With a last name like Fernandez and a slightly British accent, which he attributes to his Jesuit school days in India, the way the chef tells it, his peers couldn’t decide if he was from Mexico or Mars. “I used to trip people out with my accent… people just wouldn’t believe where I was from.” But he soon learned to speak the local lingo with his own twist. Biryani and brisket became his mother tongue with a Texas twang.

When Fernandez went to university at Texas Tech in Lubbock, he went from cooking with his amma to feeding his Texan roommates. Fernandez explains, “If I was outside cooking a brisket, my friends would come over and be like, ‘You also cooking biryani today?’ And I was like, ‘Heck yeah!’” His self-named ‘Texish’ style of cooking snowballed from there, says the chef. “If I was making tacos, they’d be like, you making it with chapatis and parathas? I’ve been cooking this way since 2005.”

A Marriage of Meats

When asked how he wound up cooking his mix of Texan barbecue with south Indian flavours in Buffalo, NY, Fernandez admits it was “purely accidental.” He had continued to cook as a pastime for a decade after college, in Dallas, and found himself up in Buffalo for his sister’s wedding. “We catered the wedding, my brother-in- law was smoking 20 pork butts and my mom and I were busy making chicken biryani.” And while he was up there an opportunity to cook full-time serendipitously presented itself, so he left his tech job in Texas behind to start a career in the kitchen.

“There was a restaurant opening in Williamsville, the chef had worked for Chef Jose Andres before, and he had a tapas bar. It was all molecular gastronomy… and I always wanted to learn stuff like that cause it translates to everything else that you’re doing. Next thing you know, four years went by in Buffalo.” Fernandez continues, “Around that time I randomly ran into a guy that had a restaurant space opening up in his building.” 

The building proprietor had ordered that day’s special, Fernandez’ take on a chana masala, and started asking the staff who had made the dish. “I was having shots with my friend right next to him, and was like, ‘that’s me.’” He was turning an old warehouse into commercial kitchens, and as he was so impressed with Fernandez’ cooking, he asked him if he’d be interested in taking up a space there. Fernandez went with the flow and snatched up the space for a barbecue joint, as that’s “what he always wanted to delve into.” The way he puts it, “It was funny, cause the entire time I was thinking of returning to Dallas.”

Smoke it to the Bone

Fast-forward to the present, and Fernandez and I are spending our Sunday morning admiring his ginormous smoker chugging away on a seasoned mixture of oak, cherry, and hickory wood. “My friend who owns a mechanical company in town fabricated the whole thing, custom spec. He even built the insulated fire box… I can cook in under 10 degree weather. The whole thing weighs like 4,000 pounds,” he gloats. 

Meet America’s Malayali Bbq Master

Bacon-wrapped jalapeños are taken out of the 4,000-pound smoker, custom built with an insulated fire box to battle Buffalo’s notorious winters. Photo by: Julian Manning

But his excitement shifts into higher gears when I ask about what menu items personify his bi-cultural upbringing. “Hmm, I’d say the brisket dipped in tikka curry sauce or the barbacurry. Go anywhere in Texas and you can get chopped beef or barbacoa. I never planned it (barbacurry) as a menu item, but our indoor dining got shut down a week after opening due to the pandemic. I was spending 8.50 to 10 dollars a pound for brisket, so I said we’re gonna have to do chopped beef or barbacoa to make use of all that produce. My mom said, ‘Why don’t you do Kerala beef fry?’ And I just blurted out, ‘It’s barbacurry! Let’s call it barbacurry!’”

He continues, “It came out of not wanting to waste food. It’s basically smoked and chopped brisket and chuck, with caramelised onion and our in-house spice blend: full of coriander, fennel, fenugreek, and a bunch of other spices, sautéed all together and mixed in with the chopped beef… it’s just fun to cook.”

And let me tell you, it’s even more fun to eat, the smoked meat more tender than any beef fry I’ve ever tasted, and the flavour more nuanced than any barbacao or chopped beef I’ve sampled as well: a marriage of styles that blend the qualities of succulence and spice into a sumptuouss union. “The flavour profile is very similar to what my family has been eating for generations. Instead of using a pressure cooker, I use the smoker for 12 to 18 hours,” explains Fernandez. Perhaps the chef’s most enjoyable endorsement of his cooking is when “local Mallus come over and say, ‘Holy s**t! You made beef fry but it’s smoked!’”

As I’m about to dig into the rest of his fare, an older-looking man briskly walks by, shouting to Fernandez, “Okay Mr. Ten! Presentation ten, taste ten, tenderness ten. We got a winner!”

“Another happy customer?” I ask. 

“That dude’s a barbecue judge,” replies Fernandez. 

While numerically grading the meals I eat has never been the way I want to talk about the food, I had to agree with the old-timer on his summation of the scrumptious spread in front of me. Vegetable sides are a big part of the barbecue game, and Southern Junction’s barbecue-rubbed fried gobi rides with the best of them, as crisp has a hush puppy on the outside and as soft as creamed spinach on the inside. The buttery cardamom cornbread also manages to walk the tightrope of east and west with ample alacrity, as does the barbacurry kolache. The Czech-orgin kolache, brought to Texas long ago by immigrants, is a sweet or savoury bun with a respectively sweet or savoury filling; in this avatar, it is like a Goan sausage pao, except the soft strands of barbacurry call the centre of the baked good home. He also serves a mean biryani, a standout barbecued chicken tikka, and memorable pork ribs. But curry or no curry, the brisket showcases Fernandez’ skills as a Texas-stlye barbecue master, a cook who earned his boots with the best of them. 

Given Fernandez’ youth was the inverse of mine—he leaving south India for Texas in the eight grade, while I did the opposite in the seventh—I had an on-the-nail hunch we’d have some entertaining stories to exchange. But nothing expressed the connection of our shared cultures like his food, and after a long time, I felt I was enjoying a meal that was truly speaking my language.

 

This feature appeared in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India May-June 2022.

 

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  • Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Senior Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.

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