Matt Horn has walked a long road to open his first barbecue restaurant: months of construction and permitting setbacks, a full-blown pandemic, and of course, before all that, the many, many years the Oakland-based pitmaster spent honing his craft, tending to a fire at three or four in the morning.
For the past four years, Horn’s pop-ups have been an occasion unto themselves, as devotees routinely lined up for two or three hours for a taste of the chef’s slow-smoked, Central Texas-inspired, brisket and beef ribs. So when Horn announced last year that he was opening an actual restaurant in the old Brown Sugar Kitchen space in West Oakland, not far from where many of his pop-ups were held — well, it’s probably no exaggeration to say it was the most eagerly anticipated barbecue opening the Town has ever seen.
Now, the wait is almost over: Horn BBQ will open for business at 2534 Mandela Parkway in West Oakland — for both takeout and outdoor dining — on Saturday, September 26.
Fairly or not, Bay Area barbecue has been the subject of some scorn among purists from meat-smoking strongholds like Texas or Kansas City — even Horn acknowledges that he grew up, in Fresno, eating a lot of “overly sauced meats.” Horn, for his part, is one of a growing cadre of young pitmasters who are starting to bring a new level of respectability to the West Coast scene. It’s why, even before he’d even announced plans to open a restaurant, the SF Chronicle called Horn the “future of Bay Area barbecue.”
Horn admits that there is a certain pressure attached to opening a restaurant with those kinds of expectations — especially, he tells Eater SF, as a prominent Black pitmaster here on the West Coast. Given all that, and even with the pandemic still raging, Horn doesn’t plan on holding anything back with his menu. When the restaurant opens, all of the regular items that Horn is known for will be available — his brisket, house-made sausages, pulled pork, smoked turkey, and lamb shoulder. Specials will include Horn’s beef ribs and his oxtails, which are smoked until they’re a beautiful mahogany hue, then braised in their own drippings and finished in the smoker again. On Saturdays, Horn will smoke whole hogs.
Sides will include classics like black-eyed peas, collard greens, and his wife Nina’s potato salad. Nina will also handle some of the desserts, including her famous banana pudding. As a nod to Horn’s Central California roots, the restaurant will also serve Santa Maria-style tri-tip sandwiches — plus brisket sandwiches, topped with pickled onions and honey mustard.
When the restaurant opens, it’ll offer takeout as well as outdoor seating — enough for as many 80 diners, Horn says, between the fenced-off patio in front and an additional seating area on Campbell Street, behind the restaurant, which the city of Oakland will close off to traffic. Of course, there likely won’t be any kind of indoor dining for quite some time, but when there is, the centerpiece of the restaurant will be Horn’s shiny new 1,000-gallon offset smoker. The whole dining room is built around it, Horn says, so customers can watch the kitchen crew handling the meat and tending to the flames, much like how an Italian restaurant might be built around its wood-fired oven.
The smoker wasn’t originally meant to be placed indoors, taking up valuable real estate that could have been reserved for seating. Horn says this was the compromise he came up with when the city wouldn’t allow him set up the smoker outside — one of many bureaucratic hurdles Horn had to jump to get his restaurant open.
When it comes to those challenges, however, Horn has a bit of a philosophical bent — he’s prone to posting pithy inspirational quotes on the Horn BBQ Instagram page: “There’s no competition when you’re manifesting your own lane.” “Play by the rules, but be ferocious.” Or, more recently, “Adversity is preparation for greatness.”
So yes, the chef says: He would love to have opened Horn BBQ last fall as he’d planned. But Horn says that at a certain point, he decided he wasn’t going to devote any more energy to stressing out about the restaurant. Instead, he focused on something he could control — namely giving back to the community through a series of food giveaways.
Ultimately, Horn believes all of the delays were meant to be: “I think it happened for a reason.” In particular, he points to the protests that sprang up in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, and the many other Black lives that have been lost to police violence. “You put so much love in a country that doesn’t love you back,” Horn says, noting that he, too, has had a police officer pull a gun on him.
Horn often speaks about the responsibility he feels as a Black pitmaster who has come to prominence during a time when the barbecue scene’s most acclaimed figures tend not to look like him. Now, he says, that feels more important than ever. “When you see something that is historically Black that has a Black influence, and you see Black pitmasters not getting recognized,” Horn says, “That’s what gets to me.”
Horn sees his own efforts, then, as an homage to the Black pitmasters who came before him — the Henry Perrys, Ed Mitchells, and Helen Turners of the world, who might never have become household names. And as much as he wants Horn BBQ to be a great restaurant, he also wants it to be a shining example in the community.
“I want to be a light,” he says. “I want to show love to everybody.”