If like me, you greatly admire people who persevere against punishing odds, then Matt Horn surely deserves your utmost esteem.
Read the first few pages of his new cookbook, “Horn Barbecue” (Harvard Common Press), of which I received a review copy, and it will just about break your heart.
In it, Horn recounts his earliest pop-up in 2016 in the broiling summer heat in Tracy. He had been up all night, readying his spareribs, pulled pork, and brisket that he set up in a cramped black tent outside Ralph’s Bar. Horn, who intended to stay there until all the food was sold, was joined by his wife, who was then eight months pregnant.
As the hours ticked by, the sweltering temperatures rose only higher. In that time, only one customer made a purchase. Just one.
Horn couldn’t have felt more dejected or more like giving up.
The last thing he wanted to do was to have to cart all that food back home — along with his wounded pride. So, he loaded it all up and drove to an impoverished part of town, where many were unhoused. He started doling out the food for free to eager and hungry folks. It was at that moment that he felt the true power of his cooking — the ability to connect and bring joy to people.
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.
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.