“Take the stones that people throw at you and use them to build monuments,” reads the quote written on the back wall outside Horn BBQ — a word of advice, or perhaps a self-reminder, from the Oakland-based pitmaster Matt Horn, who is fond of such aphorisms.
Now, after nearly a year of permitting snafus, construction delays, and an industry-crushing pandemic, Horn is finally set to unveil his own monument of sorts: The long-running, legendary barbecue pop-up finally opens its long-awaited West Oakland restaurant this Saturday, September 26, for takeout and outdoor dining. It’s a grand debut that might very well be the most exciting thing that’s ever happened in the world of Bay Area barbecue. Update: As noted by the SF Chronicle, Horn announced Friday that an issue with its smoker would delay the restaura’s opening until “next week,” but did not provide additional details.
Horn’s skill with the smoker has made him a household name among Bay Area barbecue aficionados — and, indeed, the centerpiece of the new restaurant will be the brisket, beef ribs, spare ribs, pulled pork, turkey, and house-made hot links that have been a staple at his pop-ups. Horn BBQ partisans have long touted the food as the closest thing to real-deal Central Texas barbecue that you can find in the Bay Area, though Horn himself has said that he isn’t dogmatic about doing things only in the Texas style. He’ll sometimes do Santa Maria-style tri tip, for instance, in keeping with his own Central Californian roots.
On Saturdays, Horn will smoke whole hogs, and there will be other rotating specials as well: lamb shoulder and oxtails that are both smoked and braised. And the sides will hit on all the classics: collard greens, black-eyed peas, pit beans, corn bread, mac and cheese, and a potato salad that is Horn’s wife (and partner in the venture) Nina’s particular specialty. Nina Horn will also oversee the desserts, which will include banana pudding and rum cake — the latter of which Horn says is a particularly nostalgic sweet that he grew up on.
For all the talk of Horn being “the future of Bay Area barbecue,” the pitmaster is quick to point to the long history of his chosen craft, and in particular the fact that, historically, down in the South, serious barbecue was mostly something that was practiced at old-school types of places — and that, as Horn notes, “it was always older Black gentlemen who were doing this hard work,” toiling through the night without any fanfare. Horn sees himself as a bit of callback to this time before barbecue, in his view, became seen as a trendy, “hipster” thing. “Barbecue’s always been a cool thing,” Horn says. “People are now starting to recognize that and appreciate it.”
The design of the West Oakland restaurant space speaks to that affinity for barbecue’s deep history, as Horn says he modeled the look of the restaurant after classic barbecue joints that he admires — he cited Louie Mueller’s, in Central Texas, as one of the inspirations for the restaurant’s “nostalgic, vintage feel.” That’s reflected in the custom cowhide stools that line a classic diner-style counter, which customers might recall from the dining rooms Brown Sugar Kitchen days — the best seats in the house whenever indoor dining becomes a possibility. It’s also reflected in the very spare, simple decor, which consists mostly of framed photographs of past Horn BBQ events. As Horn puts it, “When you go into the space, it’s going to tell a story.”
The other prominent design feature is Horn’s brand new 1,000-gallon offset smoker itself, which is located in a 750-square-foot pit room inside the restaurant. It’s the only indoor smoker in California, the restaurant claims, and it’s always visible through a large floor-to-ceiling window in the back of the dining room. The idea, Horn has said, is for customers to feel that much closer to the whole barbecue process — to actually watch the pit masters tending the flames and pulling the meat out of the smoker while you’re eating.
What is perhaps of more immediate concern to diners right now, however, is the restaurant’s outdoor seating, and the Horn BBQ has plenty of that to offer — about 40 seats in a fenced-off patio that has picnic tables, stools, and long benches, and then another 40 at picnic tables set up along Campbell Street behind the restaurant.
Because of the COVID-19 crisis, the other big concern will be how the restaurant will manage the inevitable crowds of customers; after all, one of the hallmarks of the Horn BBQ pop-up experience was the long lines, which sometimes stretched for two or three hours, and became a kind of rollicking block party in and of themselves. During COVID times, that’s less than ideal, and so Horn has said that he’s considering some kind of pre-ordering reservation system.
At least for this weekend’s grand opening, though, food will be sold on a first come, first serve basis via a socially distanced line — so yes, it’s probably a good idea to start lining up early (perhaps even right now) if you want to snag the choicest cut of that slow-smoked brisket.
When it opens for takeout and outdoor dining, Horn BBQ’s initial hours at 2534 Mandela Parkway will be Thursday through Sunday, from 11 a.m. to whenever all of the food sells out.
UPDATE, Friday, September 25, 6:13 p.m.: Because of “bureaucratic hurdle” related to the restaurant’s indoor smoker, it has postponed this Saturday’s planned opening — like until next week.