A tray of Horn Barbecue smoked meat. Photo: HorngrillHorn barbecue
2534 Mandela Parkway (26th Street), Oakland
Updated October 21 at 7:23 pm: Horn Barbecue has passed its final inspection and has been given permission to open its doors to the public on Saturday, October 24th from 11am. Get there early – there will be a line and the food will sell out.
Updated September 25th at 6:38 pm: Nosh has just learned that the opening of Horn Barbecue has been postponed due to a last minute problem with the smoker. Horn Barbecue will update its social media and website with a new opening date as soon as it is known.
Original story: “Finish what you start in life.” It’s the mantra that kept Matt Horn energized, positive, and on track to open Horn Barbecue in West Oakland, the famous pitmaster’s first store and arguably the most anticipated restaurant opening of the year in the Bay Area. After months of setbacks and delays, this barbecue-loving oasis will finally open its doors on Saturday, September 26th.
The commitment is built into the craft of grilling itself. Horn takes two or three days to cook and season its meat before it even gets into the smoker, and once inside it needs a vigilant babysitter. The Fresno-born black chef, now in his early 30s and nationally recognized for his central Texas and central California-style barbecue, can remember his early days learning what it was like to be a pitmaster. He would get up at 3 or 4 in the morning and attend to what was slowly smoking in his meat cabinet cooker he’d set up in an alley behind a bar. “There were times when I just wanted to go home and go to sleep,” he said. But smoking meat is a long game that requires patience, commitment and courage.
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Horn Barbecue is located on Mandela Parkway and 26th Street in West Oakland. Photo: Sarah Han
This was what Horn tried to explain to Oakland officials, who were concerned about the smoker he originally planned to set up outside of the new restaurant – an issue that hampered the opening of the restaurant for several months and almost led Horn to move to West Oakland left. According to Horn, officials “had no understanding of how smokers are managed,” believing that his stove would be dangerous if left unattended. But meticulous Pitmasters like Horn stay close to their smokers and groom them constantly to make sure the fire is even throughout the cooking process. Horn’s meat is all cooked at different temperatures, low and slow cooked over smoldering California oak. Some, like his brisket, take 16 to 18 hours to create a deep, smoky flavor and impress a smoke ring or thin layer of pink just below the charred exterior of the beef.
In the end, Horn had to give up his smoker – a new 1000-gallon offset model from Costa Mesa – but that concession will give him the boastful right to have the first indoor pit with an offset smoker in all of California.
Those who have followed Horn in the past four years may remember that his former smoker was 500 gallons and was affectionately called “Lucille.” It was aptly named after the guitar that legendary blues musician BB King commemorates in the song. Like King with his guitar, Horn’s Lucille earned him recognition, first on his first Oakland pop-up at the Ale Industries brewery, but best known outside a gas station right next to his new restaurant.
Pitmaster Matt Horn and his 500 gallon offset smoker Lucille. Photo: Horngrill
Hundreds lined up and waited for hours for a foretaste of Horn’s grill, especially its melted breast piece, but also its spare ribs, pulled pork, hot limbs and sides. Horn compares the scene to a “tailgate experience” and tells of people who met their spouses while they were waiting for food at his events. No doubt there will be long lines once the restaurant opens that weekend, and likely many days after that (for those rightly wary of social distancing, you might want to wait for the excitement to subside to get your first taste to get). Matt Horn has a group and it rides deep; He’s heard of followers and supporters traveling from Los Angeles, Arizona, or even Mexico for the opening on Saturday.
Horn is one of the first faces that guests see when entering the restaurant. He plans to be there every day it’s open slicing and portioning brisket, ribs, pulled pork, and turkey, which are on sale by the pound (prices range from $ 22 to $ 30 a pound for most meats , Market price for some cuts). The restaurant also serves hot links ($ 8), as well as brisket, tri-tip, and pulled pork sandwiches on Martin’s potato rolls ($ 15). Every Saturday, Horn roasts a whole pig and there are changing specialties such as shoulder of lamb, ribs of beef and oxtail. The oxtail recipe is based on a family recipe that the chef tweaked by cooking the creamy meat at a low temperature with soft smoke and in its own fat. Horn said when it comes to sourcing, he always used “the best meat we could find,” like traditional pork and premium brisket, even in his early pop-up years. “I like to keep things simple and do things at a high level,” he said.
Matt Horn (center) cuts and serves grilled dishes at the counter of his new West Oakland restaurant. Photo: Sarah Han
Sides, which come in two sizes ($ 6 for medium and $ 10 for large), include beans, cabbage, black-eyed peas, potato salad, coleslaw, mac and cheese, and a cheesy casserole dish called “Granny’s Potatoes” . The latter two pages are versions of the ones made by his grandmother, who was known for making massive food spreads. (Horn recalls going home for meals, where she set up a long table for meat only, another table for side dishes, and another for cakes.) Nina Horn, Horn’s wife, has desserts that include banana pudding and bourbon bread pudding and Kahlua cake ($ 6).
Service will come first, served first – 11am until food is sold out – take away and al fresco dining. It will be tempting for many to dine outside as the heavy, heavenly smell of Horn’s Grill is intoxicating and gives a sense of urgency to join in immediately. For those who can’t wait to take their food home, there’s a small, triangular, pent-in terrace with tables for 40 people, as well as a more spacious area along Campbell Street with picnic tables for 40 more people.
Picnic tables can seat 40 guests in one of Horn’s two outdoor seating areas. Photo: Sarah Han
Although closed for indoor dining, Horn Barbecue can seat 80 guests, when allowed, at tables and chairs, as well as swiveling cowhide-upholstered dining room chairs that look out onto the open kitchen with a view of a glass partition. At the back of the restaurant, guests have a view through floor-to-ceiling glasses into the pit room, where the new smoker lives. The space is barely recognizable 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 barbecues hang on the white walls of the otherwise sparsely decorated restaurant. Horn explained that he wanted to capture these scenes because they represent the feeling of community, welcome, and family that guests should feel within them.
The Pitmaster is well aware that his restaurant is just down the street from a large camp of people without residence. In the early days of the pandemic, he set tables outside the restaurant and handed out free meals. While he hoped to feed Oakland’s hardest hit – people who had lost their jobs, families struggled, and other members of the community feeling unsafe about food – the freebies were open to anyone who came. Horn’s eye lights up when asked if he’s going to continue these community dinners, and he is obviously smiling from behind his mask as he explains his plans for Thanksgiving and Christmas presents. “Now I have a place to do that,” he said.
Horn is deeply relieved that he is almost finished with his trip to the Horn Barbecue. He admits that before he had a home base, he always felt “on the edge” – the rush of crawling to get to a pop-up place to set everyone up with a smile and greet everyone, and then to pack up and tidy up when it was all over getting old. He is grateful to be in one place.
“It’s a breath of fresh air.”
Horn Barbecue opens on Saturday, September 26th. The opening times are from 11 a.m. to the sale from Thursday to Sunday.
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