Oakland’s Horn Barbecue — The Wait Is Almost Over

Horn Barbecue's incredible brisket and ribs.
Horn Barbecue’s incredible brisket and ribs.

Let me preface this by saying that I am not the biggest beef eater by any means.

But when pitmaster extraordinaire Matt Horn carved off a tiny morsel of fatty, warm brisket and handed it to me last week, it may have just turned me for good.

Supple, near spoonable, and downright custardy, this brisket is beyond.

What he turns out at his Horn Barbecue in West Oakland is near life-changing stuff.

Brisket, smoked low and slow with utmost intention for up to 16 hours, that he gets going at the ungodly hour of 2 a.m. Pork ribs that are tender yet still have a nice little give, plus impressive smoke ring penetration. Pulled pork sandwiches piled high with shards of meat plus a crisp, celery seed-flecked slaw. Shell mac ‘n’ cheese with gobs of cheese. And his wife Nina’s potato salad — hefty, creamy, substantial, and like tater salad crossed with egg salad.

The building is painted in a hue called "Black panther.''
The building is painted in a hue called “Black panther.”
Matt and Nina Horn have opened their first restaurant.
Matt and Nina Horn have opened their first restaurant.

I had a chance to try all of that last week at a media preview for Horn Barbecue, which is expected to open to the public sometime this week for outdoor dining and takeout at Tanya Holland’s former Brown Sugar Kitchen location. Check its Instagram or Facebook page for the latest news on its opening date, which was derailed at least once before because of city approval delays.

Opening hours will be Thursday through Sunday, from 11 a.m. until everything sells out. And based on past experiences, that may very well be only a few hours. So word to the wise: Get there early.

Mac 'n' cheese.
Mac ‘n’ cheese.
Nina Horn's eggy potato salad.
Nina Horn’s eggy potato salad.

Horn started selling at a Tracy farmers market stand in 2016, then graduated to pop-ups that grew so wildly popular that there were often lines of 1,000 people for waits of up to 4 hours.

The striking mural of a bull at the front of the restaurant was created by Oakland artist Steven Anderson.
The striking mural of a bull at the front of the restaurant was created by Oakland artist Steven Anderson.
Another Steven Anderson mural that's located near the picnic tables outside.
Another Steven Anderson mural that’s located near the picnic tables outside.
A saying that Matt Horn takes to heart that's painted on the side of the fence.
A saying that Matt Horn takes to heart that’s painted on the side of the fence.

With permit delays and the pandemic, it’s taken nearly a year for him to open his restaurant. During that time, he launched the Horn Initiative, a philanthropic endeavor that served more than 4,000 meals to essential workers and those in need.

Pulled pork sandwich.
Pulled pork sandwich.
Ribs with that coveted smoke ring.
Ribs with that coveted smoke ring.

Horn calls his style, “West Coast barbecue,” rooted in the lauded meat-smoking techniques of Central Texas, the age-old traditions of the Black South, and the stellar ingredients of Northern California.

The menu. There will be rotating specials, too.
The menu. There will be rotating specials, too.

This isn’t barbecue that’s smothered in sauce. Instead, Horn uses an extremely restrained hand to let the meat speak for itself. And what it says in your mouth is volumes.

The custom smoker, as seen last week prior to opening. Horn dubbed his former smoker, "Lucille.'' No word yet on what he's calling this new one.
The custom smoker, as seen last week prior to opening. Horn dubbed his former smoker, “Lucille.” No word yet on what he’s calling this new one.
Cowhide-covered chairs at the counter.
Cowhide-covered chairs at the counter.

A Southern California native, Horn had no restaurant experience before this. He does have family in the South, including his grandfather on whose pit he first honed his techniques.

He’s upgraded substantially from that now with a custom 1,000-gallon offset smoker that’s housed in its own pit room, believed to be the only indoor one in California. There’s also an outdoor smoker that will be fired up on Saturdays to cook whole hogs.

Matt Horn slicing brisket.
Matt Horn slicing brisket.

Once the restaurant can open for indoor dining, guests seated in the back of the restaurant can view the smoker in action through the glass. For now, passersby can get a peek through a window on the sidewalk.

I’ve yet to make the pilgrimage to the sensation that is Franklin Barbecue in Austin. But after tasting Horn Barbecue, maybe I won’t have to, because I have a feeling that Horn’s legacy is destined to be equally as righteous and enduring.

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