Last Wednesday, I headed over to West Oakland for a preview lunch to check out the latest addition to the Horn Hospitality Group, KOWBIRD. Founder and CEO Matt Horn’s fried chicken joint is a celebration of chicken and an homage to family gatherings, Sundays after church, and backyard meals with friends—he says, “To open a fried chicken concept in my home of Oakland is personal to me, it bridges family, love, soul, and good food.”
Kowbird opened last Friday for takeout, with a line that started at 7am and extended for blocks, just like when Horn Barbecue first opened. But what the public didn’t know is they were down two fryers over the weekend, which severely impacted service. How’s that for some Mercury retrograde shenanigans? Ugh. They are also changing their hours to be respectful of their team and output and are putting in a break in service—with such long lines, it’s a big push and they need to catch their breath.
Kowbird is on the corner of Peralta and 18th Street, where the former Pretty Lady diner has been feeding the neighborhood since 1949. The team kept the horseshoe counter with the vintage linoleum intact, plus some other original details, while adding murals with images of Black farmers and a soundsystem that plays both inside and outside. The music feels so personal—it’s a highly curated playlist of Etta James, Count Basie, Coltrane, Wycliffe Gordon, and others, “bringing the soul and love,” as Horn puts it. Horn Barbecue is about a 10-minute walk away, and their original pop-up was just across the street, so they are very committed to being part of the neighborhood and supporting the local community. Nina Horn, Matt’s wife, tells me they would eat at Pretty Lady often, and are honored that they had the opportunity to keep the location’s historic legacy in the neighborhood going.
They’re opening indoor seating this week (please be respectful and safe and don’t crowd, folks!), and will be placing benches along the perimeter of the building. They hope for approval for a parklet soon so they can offer outdoor seating.
The menu is centered on fried chicken, available in a variety of flavor combinations and either as a sandwich, plate, or with waffles! Call me a classic girl, but I love loved the Southern Bird, a downright huge, deboned, buttermilk fried chicken thigh that has layers of flavor in the crunchy, craggy dredge—they fry the chicken in aromatic rice bran oil, with chicken fat, herbs, garlic, and more. It comes on a Martin’s potato roll with housemade compressed pickles and their Kowbird sauce, which has a touch of tomato and honey to it, and that’s all I could be told (wink). This bird is major, so juicy and craggy and well-seasoned.
There’s also a Honey Bird, finished in a pickled mustard seed and aged honey sauce, and the Early Bird, with Southern-style gravy and a fried egg.
I was excited to try the Hot Bird, their West Oakland version inspired by Nashville hot chicken, which is brined for two-three days with buttermilk from the cultured butter they make, dredged, and finished with a dusting of a dehydrated, lacto-fermented chile powder. It’s fiery, but not too much—it has that kind of addictive heat that keeps you coming back for another bite, even though your mouth is getting progressively hotter (this happens to me when I eat Z&Y Restaurant’s chicken fried in explosive pepper, I just can’t stop). Good thing they have some housemade sweet tea here to cool your jets. I love that they use Duke’s mayo (my fave) and the bread-and-butter pickles are crucial to the balance and magic of this sandwich. Depending upon who made your sandwich, the pickles will either be on top of or below the chicken. On Sundays, you can get a fried catfish sandwich, with the option to order it Nashville hot.
Chef de cuisine Adam Lawrence walked me through their creative oyster mushroom vegan sandwich, which comes with a bean-based vegan aioli (instead of using aquafaba) that you drizzle over the hearty clusters of fried and seasoned mushrooms and carrot slaw. The dredge is full of cumin and coriander (which plays well with the cilantro in the slaw)—it also has a kick from serrano pepper juice. He has cooked vegan for over eight years, so he really wanted to help create a sandwich that would be as good as the chicken.
There’s a unique chicken-and-waffle combo, with a buckwheat waffle made with puffed buckwheat in a beignet-style batter, and a couple wings of that insanely good fried chicken. The hearty waffle is par-cooked and then fried (!) and served with their honey butter, which is made with caramelized honey and cultured butter, so it has a lot of deep flavor. (This reheats well at home, by the way.)
The sides are next-level: the rich fried cabbage with smoky country bacon is pretty special—I say get an order to bring home and put in your grilled cheese or try it on an English muffin topped with an egg (yes, I really heart leftovers). The three-cheese mac and cheese comes topped with crunchy dehydrated chicken skin, and I was telling a friend the dank fried gizzards are what gizzards aspire to be—they’re so good, don’t be afraid to try them, they’re the true chicken nuggets.
Dessert includes a variety of pies in the vintage pie fridge in the center of the restaurant, like sweet potato and pecan, and Key lime pie, and apple, but what will catch your eye are the glistening candy apples, an homage to Horn’s grandmother, who used to make and sell them at church and in the neighborhood. Horn remembers being a kid and he could barely get his chin on her dining table so he could gaze upon all the candy apples—you’ll have a similar feeling when you see them. I ended up cutting mine up into pieces at home because just in case you have a meeting, the red will stain your lips (and fingers!), which will make you look and feel like a kid again. You’ll find more pics of everything in my post on Instagram.
A couple more things: this spring will welcome Matty’s Old Fashioned, Horn’s Oakland burger joint (check out a pic of a preview burger I enjoyed last spring), and the release of his first cookbook: Horn Barbecue: Recipes And Techniques From A Master of The Art of Barbecue—presale available now via Amazon, or wait to buy it from a local bookseller when it comes out in April.
Open Wed-Sun 11am-3pm and 5pm-8pm. Follow updates at @kowbird. 1733 Peralta St. at 18th St., Oakland.
Kowbird’s fried chicken and buckwheat waffle with honey butter. Photo: © tablehopper.com.