For a change, there’s a smell of smoke in the air that is greatly desired and appreciated, and it’s coming from the (almost/sorta/kinda) soft-opened and much-awaited location of HORN BARBECUE in West Oakland. Pitmaster Matt Horn has been slowly, steadily, thoughtfully, and steadfastly working toward this moment: the opening of his first brick-and-mortar location. Instead of hauling his 500-gallon smoker Lucille to the Tracy farmers’ market and pop-ups and breweries, as he has been doing over past four-plus years, he finally has a place to land: Tanya Holland’s former Brown Sugar Kitchen location—from one significant Black-owned business owner to another.
The project has been besieged by city bureaucracy and endless frustrations and pandemic-related delays, but thankfully, Matt Horn is all about perseverance. Not unlike his fans, who will camp out overnight and wait hours in line for his barbecue at his pop-ups (they will even grill and do tailgate-style cookouts while patiently waiting). Over time, he has built up a dedicated fan base, a true community, who will travel from far away (like Arizona, LA, Mexico) for his barbecue that is uniquely his style, pulling from Central Texas traditions, the South, and honoring his Central California roots and Bay Area connections. There are people who have even met in his lines and gotten married, how about that?
In this world of hype and Instagram-fueled madness, it can sometimes be hard to discern what is truly warranted, and what is just a bunch of people trying to check a box and post a pic: “Yeah, I had it.” But last August, at his pop-up in Alameda at Hangar 1 distillery, I pretty much had my mind blown with his brisket, and spare ribs, and pulled pork, and his wondrous beef ribs (big wow, never had anything like it). Killer beans and potato salad. The long line of (smiling) people waiting in the sun made much more sense to me.
I’ve been thinking about that brisket for a year, and when I suddenly had it back in front of me at a media preview last week, I felt something click in my taste memory bank. The rich texture of it is not unlike having marbled A4 beef—it’s infinitely tender and the way the meat and fat meld together is almost custardy—no sinewy or flaky shards of brisket here. It’s lovingly smoked for 16-18 hours, and has the smoke ring to show for it. The smoky bark doesn’t overwhelm, nor does any seasoning distract. It’s a supremely special thing, and definitely worth $30/pound.
The menu will feature tender spare ribs smoked hot and then slow, served with a tasty house sauce that is sweet with honey mustard ($25/lb.); pulled pork ($25/lb.) that is juicy, textured, and so fantastic piled into a squishy Martin’s potato roll with some kicky coleslaw (you can also get brisket or tri-tip in a sandwich, all $15). There will also be St. Louis ribs, turkey, and hot links (plus some special sausages coming soon), and if you see the beef ribs, snag one. Rotating specials and additions will also include oxtails, chicken, lamb shoulder, and they’re going to be smoking whole hogs and lambs (on a different smoker) on Saturdays. He has always sourced quality meats, from using Prime brisket for his pop-ups to heritage hogs.
Sides include pit beans, a stellar eggy potato salad (thanks to his wife Nina’s recipe), slaw, Granny’s potatoes (a cheesy, casserole-like dish his grandmother made, who was famous for her big spreads), mac and cheese (they use shells, all the better to catch all the cheesy goodness), collards, and black-eyed peas (medium, $6, large $10). Matt’s wife and partner Nina is also behind the desserts, which include banana pudding, bread pudding, and Kahlua cake ($6). Beer, wine, sweet tea, and custom sodas will also be available.
Inside the restaurant, there’s a long counter where Matt and his team will be slicing and weighing meats, scooping up sides, and serving you on custom metal sheet pans. When they eventually start indoor dining, there are tables and a counter with cowhide-covered stools, while the back of the restaurant is anchored by a 1,000-gallon smoker from Harper Barbecue in Costa Mesa that resides is in its own 750-square-foot room (it took a crane and forklifts to get it in place), with a 26-foot hood. The smoker was originally going to be outside the restaurant, naturally, but the city wouldn’t allow it (long and frustrating story), so his team had to come up with this indoor solution instead. Diners in the restaurant and folks outside will be able to see it in action from windows on both sides of the room—Horn thinks it’s important for people to be able to see the barbecue process. It’s reportedly the first indoor barbecue pit in California, and what a journey it has been. While they originally planned to open this past Saturday September 26th, there was yet another snag, this time involving the indoor smoker.
For now, Horn is running things like a pop-up and doing pre-orders off a limited menu for pick-up Thu-Sun (they announce when the sale is live on Instagram). Once they get through the endless hurdles, they’ll be opening their two picnic areas for on-site dining with room for 100—one area is an enclosed patio, and they got permission to take over Campbell Street behind the restaurant to set up a number of picnic tables and a few standing counters as part of the Flex Streets Initiative. The murals on the fence and restaurant are by Steven Anderson Art.
Stand by for updates as things progress. It’s a shame this project has been so mired in bureaucracy and Alameda County-related difficulties. It’s a much-needed, high-profile, Black-owned addition to the neighborhood, and Horn has already been taking care of the community and feeding his unhoused neighbors. During the pandemic, he launched a fundraiser, the Horn Initiative, so he could serve thousands of meals to the Oakland community, as well as frontline workers in local hospitals. There’s a reason he has been getting up at 2am to fire up his smoker all these years, tend it through the night, and then serve his carefully crafted barbecue to you with a warm smile—he loves to feed people. He treats his guests like family. We’re lucky, here, and waiting. Once things are fully up and running, they will be open Thu-Sun, from 11am to sold out. 2534 Mandela Parkway at 26th St., Oakland.
Pitmaster Matt Horn standing outside Horn Barbecue (mural by Steven Anderson Art). Photo: © tablehopper.com.