Matt Horn says he’s just trying to be patient. The celebrated pitmaster — touted in some corners as the future of barbecue for his Central-Texas-meets-California style smoked brisket pop-ups — has been in a holding pattern with the city of Oakland for the past couple of months while he awaits final clearance for his hotly anticipated West Oakland barbecue restaurant. The good news about the delay? It’s given Horn time to iron out the kinks on the other new restaurant he’ll be opening this year: Kowbird, a Southern-style fried chicken sandwich kiosk that will debut in Jack London Square’s Oakland Assembly food hall, at 55 Harrison Street, probably sometime in August or September when the food hall itself opens.
The sandwiches will make their public debut at a pop-up Horn is hosting on Saturday, February 8, from 1 to 3 p.m., at 1700 Center Street in West Oakland.
“Fried chicken is a part of American culture,” says Horn, explaining that both his mother and grandmother cooked a lot of it when he was growing up. “Chicken is chicken. But I wanted to put my touch on it.”
Eater SF reported the news of Kowbird this past fall, when Oakland Assembly first announced its lineup of chefs and restaurants. At the time, Horn didn’t divulge any details other than the fact that it would not be a barbecue restaurant and that the focus would be chicken. But now he’s ready properly introduce Kowbird to the world.
The counter-service restaurant, at its core, will be a family-oriented fried chicken joint, inspired by the kinds you’ll find all over the South, Horn says. The heart of the menu will be four different fried chicken sandwiches (more on those in a second), but he’ll also serve chicken wings and bone-in fried chicken, available by the piece or the quarter-bird. The sides will be “Southern driven” as well — collard greens, macaroni salad, mac and cheese, and, perhaps most exciting, fried giblets. There will be fries for people who like to have those with their sandwiches. And Horn and his wife, Nina, will also offer Southern-style cakes and pies for dessert.
What Horn says he isn’t interested in is chasing trends. So, for instance, he didn’t want to open a Nashville hot chicken restaurant just because those are having a moment in the Bay Area right now, and he says he was legitimately “pissed” when Popeyes rolled out its heavily-hyped fried chicken sandwich this past fall because he didn’t want people to think he was just jumping on the bandwagon. Ultimately, he says, he wants to build Kowbird to last longer than any short-term food fad — and, eventually, to scale it up to multiple locations.
Kowbird’s calling card, then, will be a Southern-style buttermilk fried chicken sandwich. It’ll feature a fried chicken thigh, an aioli, and a house-made bun — he’s still experimenting with the exact type. And, to add another layer of flavor, he’ll incorporate a little bit of smoked honey, though not enough to make the sandwich sweet.
“I try to keep things really simple, but then execute it at a high level,” Horn says.
Each different sandwich will feature chicken that has its own unique batter, then — he won’t just be topping them with different sauces. The other varieties will include a Korean-inspired fried chicken sandwich and a barbecue-inspired smoked fried chicken sandwich. And, yes, there will be a Nashville hot chicken sandwich, which Horn says he’s putting on the menu as his own tribute to his friend Johnny Ray Zone (of LA’s Howlin’ Ray’s) and the Prince family, who put Nashville hot chicken on the map. Horn’s version will be medium-hot — nothing you have to sign a waiver for, he says.
For next Saturday’s pop-up, which customers need to reserve a spot for in advance through its Facebook event page, Horn will only serve two of the sandwiches — the classic buttermilk and the hot chicken — just to give customers a taste of what’s to come. He’s also in talks with the food truck event organizer Off the Grid to see if it might make sense to launch Kowbird there as well.
As for his flagship barbecue restaurant, Horn says the current delay is the result of him finding out that the city of Oakland actually owns the slab of asphalt behind the restaurant — a space he needs in order to build his pit room. So he’s in the process of transferring the liability for that space from the city over to him — a setback that will likely push the opening back from his previous December target to sometime in April.
“Horn Barbecue is already ready to go,” he says. “That’s why I felt confident putting my attention on another concept.”