Since the James Beard Awards was founded in 1990, only seven nominations have gone to Western New York culinary professionals and restaurants. While some cities and regions receive dozens of nominations annually, Western New York has never had two (or more) nominations in any given year. Until 2024, that is, when Ryan Fernandez of Southern Junction was nominated for Emerging Chef (alongside a second nomination for 2023 semi-finalist Waxlight Bar á Vin in the category for Outstanding Wine and Other Beverages Program).
This says something about Buffalo’s growing reputation for excellent dining options. Still, it may be an even bolder statement than that—it’s a sharp assessment of Fernandez’s unique culinary point-of-view and deft execution of masterful barbecue. Scouring the JBF website, it appears that no other barbecue restaurant/chef north of the Carolinas has ever received a nomination.
On Buffalo’s West Side, about midway down Connecticut Street, the scent of fire-licked meat smoking over wood hangs in the air and awakens the appetites of passersby. A line of eager diners snakes along a narrow, open-sky passage between two buildings. They’re all waiting for their turn to cross the threshold and approach the counter and meat-chopping station inside. Guests choose from the day’s meats and sides before the team carefully assembles each order on an orange, paper-lined lunch tray. Finding a table, they tuck into fragrant, juicy smoked chicken, brisket, housemade sausages, pulled pork, and a dizzying array of tempting sides, all served with a slice of freshly baked white bread.
As familiar as this might sound to Southerners, a setup like this in Western New York is a rarity. But what is unique about Southern Junction is more than the “queue for ‘cue” service style or even the quality of its smoked meats (though also unusual)—it’s the flavor profiles.
To get here, Southern Junction survived a pandemic in its initial incubator space in Black Rock. Next, it overcame the challenges inherent in transitioning a takeout-only business in one part of the city to a counter-service location in another, but again (see the pattern here), what is unique about Southern Junction is more than its tenacity and ability to pivot—it’s the flavor profiles.
Southern Junction’s pitmaster and owner did not “come up” in restaurants, as the pros say, but instead found himself at home in the industry after logging years in tech. But we’re jumping ahead.
Ryan Fernandez, now known to Buffalonians for his “Tex-ish” style barbecue, hails from Plano, Texas. When he was fourteen, he and his family moved there from Kerala, India, a state on the southwest coast with a rich culinary heritage rooted in spice trading that can be traced back at least five thousand years.
Fernandez and his friends grew up eating barbecue and attending football games. In the early 2000s, they even played around with adding some unique flavors to traditional Texas barbecue themselves, rather unsuccessfully. “Craft barbecue wasn’t even a thing back then,” recalls Fernandez as he opens the metal door to the smoker in his restaurant’s side yard and throws wood on the glowing coals. “Before barbecue became what it is today, it was commonplace and sometimes, honestly, not even that good,” he recalls. Soon enough, Fernandez was out of college and working in tech, his chosen field.
A few years later, his mom and sister relocated again, this time to Buffalo where his sister was enrolled in college. They arrived, fresh from the hot climes of Texas to a massive snowstorm. Despite the hardship of their initial winter in Buffalo, they stayed put. Fernandez would frequently visit his mom and sister, venturing from the various places he lived in Texas to spend time with them. Eventually, they decided collectively he should relocate.
Fernandez seized the change as an opportunity to explore what he thought might be his passion, the restaurant industry. By day he built websites for small businesses and at night he worked at a chain restaurant, learning the ropes. Later, he was invited to join the Aro Bar de Tapas crew by industry friends and chefs, Scott and Monica Kollig. He shifted away from tech entirely and focused on learning the ins and outs of fine dining; he was sure restaurants were where his future lay.
Upon Aro’s closure, Fernandez went to work as the kitchen manager at lloyd Taco Factory’s bustling Hertel Avenue location. Here, he ensured a large team hit food and service quality benchmarks. Fernandez began toying more seriously with recipes and smoking at home.
Of course, any lloyd fan knows that a good portion of the magic to be had inside a taco factory location is on the seasonal and specials menu. Fernandez occasionally contributed a daily special, and on one occasion, a burrito stuffed with a fusion of his Indian background and Texas barbecue made the lineup. After a bite or two, head chef Teddy Bryant advised Ryan to lean into this unique marriage of flavors and techniques. “I hadn’t planned to do anything Indian at all, and Teddy was like, if you don’t combine these two things and make a business out of it, I’m gonna come break your legs,” Fernandez laughs.
The rest is well-documented history at this point. Fernandez would go on to build a smoker and launch Southern Junction with pop-ups and a few catering gigs. In early 2020, he found a more permanent home in a restaurant incubator on Chandler Street. Starting a new business is challenging. Starting a new restaurant is doubly tricky. Now factor in a pandemic, and you can guess how difficult the first year or so of business was, but barbecue and hustle kept the lights on. This period allowed Fernandez to perfect his menu further, try specials, and implement feedback from dedicated clientele.
By the summer of 2023, Fernandez had racked up so many hours smoking meat that he took the thermometers off his smoker, using instinct to guide the process. An opportunity to open on Connecticut Street gave him room to expand his operation to include more staff, a full bar, a dining room, and an even broader menu that includes Sunday brunch services plus desserts and dynamic specials.
No foodie’s dance card (or visit to Buffalo) is complete without a visit to Southern Junction. Whether you’re a fan of traditional smoked brisket, Texas Twinkies, and classic mac and cheese, or are more inclined toward adventure and choose the barbacurry beef, mango slaw, and cardamom cornbread, at Southern Junction, you’re in for a meal you won’t soon forget.