On one of West Oakland’s cool June days, Matt Horn is standing in front of his 500-gallon offset custom smoker, Lucille. He’s been here since last night, tending the fire. His unhurried movements slice through the thick billows of smoke. He twists his body to pick up a piece of white oak from the pile his “wood man” left for him, adding it to the inferno, unfazed by the heat.
Typically, the preparation for Horn’s barbecue pop-ups begin 48 to 72 hours ahead of the actual date. He takes no shortcuts and uses no processed or packaged foods in his preparations, making all rubs and sauces from scratch. His brisket jiggles perversely and glistens with gelatinous collagen, while the crusty bark provides a slight resistance, but eventually surrenders. Using trimmings from his brisket and pork cuts, homemade sausages emerge from the smoker with rubber band-like snaps. Unlike the unseasoned versions lining grocery store shelves, his potato salad has become a revelation for barbecue fans accustomed to sides as a second though, with large and tender pieces of red potato blending in with mashed potato pieces, egg, mustard, and other secret ingredients. His barbecue beans are tender and sweet, smoky, and slightly spicy.
Developing a Central Texas style in California
Matt Horn is ambitious but humble, with a Zen-like aura. The public is lucky to have only had to face Horn, who also has a competitive side, at his popups in Oakland, rather than on the football field. He grew up in Fresno before he went off to play college football, as a wide receiver, in Los Angeles, with NFL hopes in his future. When that dream didn’t work as planned, he started catering barbecue as a means to provide for his family — and soon realized he had found his calling.
That calling is barbecue that’s Central Texas meets Central California in style: tender brisket smoked over California oak. And it’s a time-consuming calling: Horn tends the fire of his offset smoker all through the night, shifting between sleeping at the site and shoveling fuel into the smoker. It’s slow and tedious. “I could just put the meat in an oven and walk away for the night, but that wouldn’t give me the results I’d be happy with,” says Horn.
Horn counts industry figureheads like Francis Mallmann, Rodney Scott, Wayne Mueller, and Elliott Moss as inspirations for his craft and his interest in cooking whole animals in live-fire events. He also sees a permanent restaurant location in Oakland as part of that future, though he’s in the early stages.
Oakland is fortunate to have several quality barbecue spots already: Everett & Jones, Phat Matt’s BBQ, Smokin’ Woods at 2nd Half Sports Bar, and KC’s BBQ, which recently returned to the scene after a fire consumed its original Berkeley outpost. All of these locations serve barbecue that runs the gamut from lightly seasoned to swimming in sweet, viscous sauce.
But none of them are doing barbecue like Matt Horn. Horn keeps his head down — that focus shows in his food, which comes unadorned with sauce, letting the smoke do the talking. His dry rub is highly seasoned and flavorful, and his brisket faints at its own reflection. There’s no swag and no boasting. “Matt is barbecue,” fellow pitmaster Burt Bakman, of LA’s Trudy’s Underground Barbecue, says. “He loves what he does, he does it well, and has the best smile in a world of smoke.” Horn embodies the folkloric pitmaster of the American South, cooking huge cuts of beef, except he’s from California’s Central Valley.
Horn is an old soul: he’s patient, a hard worker without complaint, focused on quality rather than quantity. His popups are sporadic and menu items are often limited, which creates lines that curl around the block. He’s hosted several at a former filling station on a West Oakland corner where patrons often stand for hours, listening to a blues band that’s set up outside.
Each person in line has made the pilgrimage to receive their brown paper parcels containing rotating combinations of brisket, homemade sausages, smoked turkey, Dino beef ribs, barbecue beans, greens with smoked turkey necks and wings (his mother’s influence), potato salad, and more. Horn and his wife, Nina, often stand at the counter together, taking orders and cutting meats. When the roll-up door to the old gas station finally opens, a literal and metaphorical thematic curtain, the muted buzz of the crowd turns to tintamarre.
A legacy of black-owned barbecue
The family business model comes from the top. Horn attributes his work ethic to his grandmother, Emma Lula Cora or Elsie (a phonetic pronunciation of her initials, ELC). Born in Oklahoma in 1927, Elsie passed away in 2017. “She was the only woman I knew who was 80 years old still working two jobs, [who] could carry a gun, make church hats, and butcher a pig,” says Horn. In conversations with Horn, the word “legacy” comes up often. Not just in terms of leaving a legacy for his future children, but his responsibility to pass something down to the black-owned barbecue community, which is becoming more scarce as time goes on.
”I don’t think black-owned barbecue joints are disappearing any faster than white-owned barbecue joints,” said Daniel Vaughn, editor of Texas Monthly, when asked if people of color were vanishing from the barbecue landscape. “I think the difference is that new black-owned barbecue joints are opening far less frequently than new white-owned ones.”
It all comes down to lack of opportunity. That is, less opportunity for investment and expansion by black owners, as well as less of a place onstage at many of the expensive-to-enter barbecue competitions that can put pitmasters on the map. For many of Horn’s peers, these expensive-to-enter competitions are opportunities to showcase their skills in an arena with many onlookers, potential business opportunities, and increased exposure to the national media.
In Horn’s case, despite the attention they bring, showy competitions aren’t his thing. “Competitions are focused on the perfect bite,” he says. “I want to create an amazing product for people. Love and kindness in a dark world, that’s what matters to me.”
As a result, every pop-up is an opportunity to court perfection, to bring him one step further toward cementing his legacy and opening a place of his own. When patrons tell Horn that he’s “killing it.” Matt coolly responds, “Working hard, focused and committed.”
Horn BBQ’s next pop-up takes place September 23 at SF’s Harmonic Brewing (1050 26th Street) from 2 p.m. till it sells out.