Nearly two full years since news first broke of acclaimed pitmaster Matt Horn’s plans to roll out a second restaurant, the West Oakland chef is finally on the precipice of pulling it off — ongoing pandemic be damned. Kowbird will open on Friday, January 14 with a menu of four fried chicken sandwiches, plus half birds served with Texas toast, wings with fries, and savory sides. Located at 1733 Peralta Street, the casual retro-inspired space is just a short amble away from Horn’s barbecue home base.
Since he began selling his slow-smoked meats at farmers markets in 2016, Horn has continuously proved his dedication to doing things the right way — the way that ensures his work product is not only undeniably delicious, but also made with thought and care for his community. For his popular barbecue pop-ups that meant spending long hours in front of a 500-gallon offset custom smoker commanding roaring flames and clouds of smoke. And when he finally debuted Horn Barbecue’s long-awaited brick and mortar, despite permitting delays and COVID-19, it meant adapting to takeout and outdoor dining to best protect diners and staff.
Now, Horn is ready to spread his wings, opening his next restaurant with the same community-minded ethos and attention to detail that’s made him one of the biggest restaurant success stories of the past two years. Yes, Kowbird is a fried chicken restaurant — but beyond that it’s a soul food restaurant, Horn says, one that’s inspired by both his own family legacy and the history of fried chicken shacks throughout the American South. “Chicken is soul, chicken is love,” Horn says. “And with that being said, it’s kind of like the essence of who we are.”
Kowbird’s “small but mighty” kitchen team includes chef de cuisine Adam Lawrence and kitchen manager Maurice McMair, who both spent time at Horn BBQ. Fans may have gotten a taste at Kowbird pop-ups; the original Southern Bird sandwich stars chicken dredged in buttermilk and seasoned flour topped with housemade pickles and “bird sauce” (Horn’s take on a classic comeback sauce) on a potato bun. Other riffs include the Honey Bird, finished with pickled mustard seed–honey sauce, and the Early Bird, a breakfast take with thick Southern-style gravy and fried egg.
There’s also the Hot Bird, a hot chicken sandwich that Horn calls an homage to the Prince family, whose Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack helped proliferate hot chicken around the country. Of course, Horn’s putting his own stamp on the now-ubiquitous dish: fermented chiles fuel fiery heat that’s tamped down with sweet pickles and herb mayo. Dried chiles seal the deal on a sandwich that’s spicier than the version Horn’s done in the past. “It’s not going to be something that you can’t enjoy but it is gonna be pretty hot,” he assures.
Diners will also be able to order half chickens; six-piece chicken wing meals, served with a side of fries; fried chicken with buckwheat waffles and honey butter; and on Sundays, a fried catfish sandwich, either original or Nashville hot. Sides include a white macaroni and cheese loaded with havarti, provolone, plus a little gouda; fried cabbage with country bacon; and vegan chicory slaw with pumpkin seed vinaigrette. Horn says he’s particularly proud of the vegan sandwich, featuring fried oyster mushrooms and adorned with a bean “aioli” and carrot slaw. Desserts draw from Southern traditions, including a salted caramel apple with peanuts and pecan pie.
Horn says spent a lot of time finding responsibly and sustainably raised chicken to fill the Kowbird kitchen. But true to his reputation for quality, care, and relentless ambition, he’s already got bigger plans in the works: the chef says he’s “in the early stages” of acquiring a Bay Area property where he’ll eventually raise his own poultry for the restaurant. If all goes according to plan, he expects to close on the property before the end of the year. More immediately, Horn says he’ll be installing some beehives at the restaurant to begin producing his own honey.
The restaurant was formerly home to a diner called Pretty Lady, and Horn made efforts to honor and preserve that history with the new design. Large black-and-white photos wrap around the space including one of a young farm girl — meant to be the restaurant’s new “pretty lady.” Horn also kept the diner’s horseshoe-shaped counter and the “funky green tile” in the kitchen. “Whenever I create any concept we want to be mindful and respectful to the community,” Horn says. “We want our guests, when they come in and enjoy the food, to have a familiarity.” Diners will order at a register, with the option to take food to-go or grab a seat at the counter or outside.
Horn says he’ll continue monitoring the viability of keeping the restaurant open for indoor dining. But as his evolving legacy as a restaurateur and chef continues to be shaped and somewhat defined by COVID-19, Horn embraces the challenge as fundamental to his success. “In the face of adversity we have to find a way to preserve,” Horn says. “That’s something me and my team, we take seriously. It can be a little discouraging, but we have to find a way to push forward. That’s what the Horn brand is about.”
Kowbird opens Friday, January 14 in West Oakland. Hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday through Sunday.