Updated Sept. 25, 6:38 p.m.: Nosh has just learned that Horn Barbecue’s grand opening has been postponed due to a last-minute issue with the smoker. Horn Barbecue will be updating its social media and website with a new opening date as soon as it is known.
“Finish what you start in life.” It’s the mantra that has kept Matt Horn energized, positive and on track to open Horn Barbecue in West Oakland, the celebrated pitmaster’s first brick-and-mortar and arguably the Bay Area’s most anticipated restaurant opening of the year. After months of setbacks and delays, this haven for barbecue lovers will finally open its doors on Saturday, Sept. 26.
Dedication is built into the craft of barbecue itself. Horn takes two or three days just to prepare and season his meat, before it even goes into the smoker, and once inside, it requires a watchful babysitter. The Fresno-born Black chef, now in his early 30s and nationally recognized for his Central Texas-meets-Central California-style barbecue, can recall his earlier days, when he was still learning what it took to be a pitmaster. He would be up at 3 or 4 a.m., tending to what was slowly smoking in his meat locker cooker, which he had set up in an alley behind a bar. “There were times I just wanted to go home and go to sleep,” he said. But smoking meat is a long game that requires patience, commitment and grit.
This is something that Horn tried to explain to Oakland officials who were concerned about the smoker that he initially planned to set up outside the new restaurant — a concern that stymied the restaurant’s opening for several months and that almost resulted in Horn abandoning the West Oakland location. According to Horn, the officials had “no understanding of how smokers are run,” believing his cooker would be a hazard when left unattended. But meticulous pitmasters like Horn stay close to their smokers, constantly tending it to ensure the fire is consistent during the whole process of cooking. Horn’s meats are all prepared at different temperatures, cooked low and slow over smoldering California oak. Some, like his brisket, take 16 to 18 hours to imbue a deep, smoky flavor and to impress a smoke ring, or thin layer of pink, just below the beef’s charred exterior.
In the end, Horn had to concede and move his smoker — a new 1,000-gallon off-set model made in Costa Mesa — inside, but this concession will give him the bragging rights of having the first indoor pit in all of California.
Those who’ve been following Horn over the past four years may recall his former smoker was 500 gallons and lovingly called “Lucille.” It was aptly named after the guitar that legendary blues musician B.B. King memorialized in song. Like King with his guitar, Horn’s skill with his Lucille brought him acclaim, first at his debut Oakland pop-up at Ale Industries brewery, but most famously, at the location outside a service station found just down the way from his new restaurant.
Hundreds would line up and wait for hours for a taste of Horn’s barbecue, especially his melt-in-your-mouth brisket, but also his spare ribs, pulled pork, hot links and sides. Horn compares the scene to a “tailgate experience,” and has stories of people who’ve met their spouses while waiting for food at his events. Without a doubt, there will be long lines once the restaurant opens this weekend and likely, for many days afterward (for those being rightly cautious about social distancing, you may want to wait until the excitement dies down to get your first taste). Matt Horn has a posse and it rides deep; he’s already heard from followers and supporters who are traveling from Los Angeles, Arizona, even Mexico, for the Saturday grand opening.
Horn will be one of the first faces guests will see when entering the restaurant. He plans to be there every day it’s open, slicing and portioning out brisket, ribs, pulled pork and turkey, offered by the pound (prices range from $22-$30 per pound for most meats, market price for some cuts). The restaurant will also serve hot links ($8) and brisket, tri-tip and pulled pork sandwiches on Martin’s potato rolls ($15). Every Saturday, Horn will roast a whole hog, and there will be rotating specials, like lamb shoulder, beef ribs and oxtails. The oxtail recipe is based on a family one that the chef tweaked, cooking the unctuous meat at a low temperature, with soft smoke and in its own fat. Horn said when it comes to sourcing, he’s always used “the best meats we could find,” like heritage pork and Prime-grade brisket, even in his early pop-up years. “I like to keep things simple and execute it at a high level,” he explained.
Sides, served in two sizes ($6 for medium; $10 for large), include pit beans, collards, black-eyed peas, potato salad, slaw, mac and cheese, and a cheesy casserole dish called “Granny’s Potatoes.” The latter two sides are versions of ones made by his grandmother, who was known for making massive spreads of food. (Horn remembers attending meals at her home, where she would set up one long table just for meat dishes, another table for sides and yet another dedicated for pies.) Desserts, made by Nina Horn, Horn’s wife, include banana pudding, bourbon bread pudding and Kahlua cake ($6).
Service will be first come, first served — 11 a.m. until food is sold out — for takeout and outdoor dining. It will be tempting for many to eat outside, as the heavy, heavenly smell of Horn’s barbecue is intoxicating, giving a sense of urgency to tuck in immediately. For those who can’t wait to take their food home, there’s a small, triangular penned-in patio with tables to seat 40, as well as a more spacious area along Campbell Street, with picnic tables for 40 more.
Although it’s closed for indoor dining, Horn Barbecue will be ready to seat 80 diners inside when allowed, at tables and chairs, and on swiveling cowhide-upholstered diner chairs that look over the open kitchen enclosed by a glass partition. To the back of the restaurant, guests can get a view through floor-to-ceiling glass into the pit room, where the new smoker resides. The space is almost unrecognizable from its previous iteration as the first home of Tanya Holland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen. A framed American flag and several glossy photos of Horn at past barbecue events hang on the white walls of the otherwise sparsely decorated restaurant. Horn explained that he wanted to capture those scenes because they represent the sense of community, welcoming and family he wants guests to feel inside.
The pitmaster is very aware that his restaurant is just down the street from a large encampment of unhoused people. During the early days of the pandemic, he set up tables in front of the restaurant and handed out free meals. While he hoped to be feeding Oakland’s hardest-hit — people who lost their jobs, struggling families and other food-insecure community members — the giveaways were open to anyone who came. Horn’s eye light up when asked whether he’ll continue doing these community meals, and he’s obviously smiling behind his mask as he explains his plans for Thanksgiving and Christmas giveaways. “Now I have a place to do that,” he said.
Horn gives off a sense of deep relief that he is nearly finished with his journey to open Horn Barbecue. He admits he’s always felt “on the edge” before having a home base — the hustle of scrambling to get to a pop-up location, to set up and greet everyone with a smile, then pack and clean up when it was all over was getting old. He is thankful to be in one place.
“It’s a breath of fresh air.”
Horn Barbecue opens Saturday, Sept. 26. Hours are 11 a.m. until they sell out, Thursday through Sunday.