Where to get Texas-style barbecue, dry-aged burgers, and ultra-marbled Japanese beef in Northern California.
Cooking can take you some crazy places on your way to opening a restaurant. Just ask the Bay Area's indie meat masters who are pushing barbecue, burgers, and open-fire cooking forward where we least expected it. Below, read up on Matt Horn, Chris Kronner, and Steve Brown as they make Northern California one of the most interesting places to eat meat right now.
Matt Horn, Horn Barbecue
The Meat of the Matter: Pitmaster Matt Horn has become a pop-up sensation by giving Oakland and other parts of the Bay Area hormone-free, dry-rubbed smoked meats that are worthy of the Texas Hill Country. (And I say this as somebody who grew up in Texas.) Horn’s brisket, cooked for 16 to 18 hours over California white oak, is marvelously supple, a deeply flavorful union of meat and fat.
During his last event, at an old service station in West Oakland he uses often, Horn served peppery hot links, beef ribs, pork ribs, pork shoulder, and turkey. The event started at 2 p.m., so people started lining up around noon. By the time Horn opened, there were more than 100 guests in line. He sold out of all his meat after serving more than 200 customers.
He’s thinking about upgrading from his 500-gallon smoker (named Lucille) to a 1,000-gallon smoker and hiring somebody to help him slice meat. For now, this is a true family business, with Horn handling the meat and his wife, Juanita, wrangling sides and desserts like pit beans, potato salad, collard greens, cornbread, chipotle apple slaw, and banana pudding. Sometimes, Horn’s mom, Enola, comes to the pop-ups to greet guests and make serve everyone in line is having a good time.
Horn, who’s also done pop-ups in San Francisco and San Jose (where he lives) and served meat at the BottleRock Napa Valley music festival, is currently looking at real estate for an Oakland restaurant that he hopes to open in the next year or so. He likes the industrial feel of West Oakland, where he wants to have a meat-centric restaurant where he can house offset smokers but also focus on open-fire cooking that goes beyond barbecue. He spent last weekend cooking a whole hog as he works on expanding his repertoire.
Unlikely (But True) Stories: Horn was living in Los Angeles when he got into barbecue, but he wasn’t cooking there—he didn’t have the right setup. So he’d drive to Fresno and make barbecue in his grandmother’s backyard. Later, he moved from L.A. to Tracy in California’s San Joaquin County and found success selling his meats at the farmers market there.
Horn has family members who are from Louisiana and Oklahoma, and even some distant relatives in Texas. But the crazy thing is, he didn’t realize he was doing Texas-style barbecue at first. He had never been to Texas. He was just making what tasted right to him. Originally, he was grilling ribs.
“I felt like there had to be another way to cook it,” he says.
It turns out that his deceased grandfather had left a stockpile of seasoned mesquite at the Fresno house, so Horn started using that to smoke meats.
“I was just doing a simple rub and letting the meat be the star,” he says. “I don’t sauce my barbecue.”
Austin-based barbecue photographer Robert Jacob Lerma saw pictures of Horn’s meats online and invited him to Texas. So last fall, Horn drove down from San Jose. The first thing he went to was a James Beard Taste America event. That’s where he hung out with meat master Aaron Franklin. During his Texas trip, Horn also met other barbecue royalty like Louie Mueller’s Wayne Mueller and Snow’s pitmaster Tootsie Tomanetz.
“I’m still learning every day,” says Horn, who remembers early pop-ups a couple years ago where maybe 15 people showed up. “You know what, I never went to culinary school or anything like that. It was just trial and error and being committed to the process.”
Barbecue can be a solitary pursuit, a life that involves cooking by yourself at odd hours and waiting as the sky gets dark and your family falls asleep and you’re alone with your thoughts. Horn says the “isolation” is part of the appeal.
“There’s something peaceful about it,” he says.
But going to Texas made Horn realize that he was part of something bigger. He feels connected to a community now, so he’s cooking with more purpose than ever.
“After meeting all these people and seeing that they share the same love and passion, it gave me the inspiration to keep developing my craft,” he says.
Chris Kronner, Henry’s and Kronnerburger
The Meat of the Matter: Chris Kronner, the former Bar Tartine chef who became a pop-up legend known for his deeply beefy and funky dry-aged burgers, is delighting aggressive carnivores at the recently reopened Henry’s inside the Graduate Berkeley hotel. The menu at Henry’s includes burgers, charcuterie, steaks, and glorious brunch biscuits with ’nduja gravy.
Kronner's also working to open a San Francisco restaurant later this year. That spot will serve a version of his famous Kronnerburger, made with 100 percent dry-aged beef that’s cooked rare.
His meat of choice? Organic, grass-fed Cream Co. beef from mature dairy cows.
“It’s a hyper-sustainable source of beef,” he says. “The flavor’s different. The flavor’s better.”
Kronner’s recently been promoting his new cookbook, A Burger to Believe In, and popping up at restaurants and other spaces on both sides of the country. During Sound & Fury, a hardcore punk music festival in downtown L.A. earlier this month, the chef served Kronnerburgers with 90-day dry-aged beef, cheddar mayo, grilled onions, iceberg lettuce, and dill pickles. Kronner adds fat to the beef he grinds, resulting in rich patties that are 30 percent fat. These patties are cooked over wood whenever possible.
The Kronnerburger is different from the cheeseburger at Henry’s, which is made with a grind that includes both dry-aged and fresh meat. The Henry’s burger, cooked on a flat-top, can be served medium-rare, medium, or well-done. It’s a burger that’s a gateway to the intensity of dry-aged beef.
Not incidentally, Kronner thinks of bone marrow as a condiment. This is something that started at Bar Tartine because musician Boz Scaggs and his wife would come in and get two burgers and a plate of bone marrow to share.
Unlikely (But True) Stories: How much time do you have for insane stories? As Kronner writes in his book, he’s cooked burgers “on grills, in microwaves, in alleys, in a couple of museums, on rooftops, in art galleries, in parking lots, and in fields next to said hamburger’s still-grazing brethren.”
There was a 2012 pop-up at Bar Tartine “where we served 600 people,” Kronner says. “There was a line for three blocks. Bar Tartine had, like, a 12-inch grill. By the end of it, we were serving patties on any piece of bread that was in the building.”
There was a six-week trip in Japan, where he traveled alongside other chefs and made burgers with venison loin and wild-boar cheeks after putting hundreds of pounds of meat through a “laughably small” grinder in Tokyo.
“A spice grinder would have worked better,” he says.
In Japan, it can be hard to get items delivered to restaurants, so a chef friend, Rimpei Yoshikawa of Tokyo bistro Pignon, drove Kronner around in a 1960s Citroën convertible to “pick things up at random little stores.” After Kronner had everything he needed, it was showtime.
“I skinned a deer in front of 450 people in front of the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art and made hamburgers,” he says. “So after that, it was like, whatever, I could cook anywhere.”
Kronner’s career has also included a stint as a private chef that took him to ranches in far Northern California and Uruguay. He butchered what was grown at the ranches and made meals with wild animals like rabbits and bears. He’s cooked in fancy kitchens and also outdoors over open fire.
But perhaps the most insane experience happened inside the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The night involved a whole steer that Kronner’s friend Howie Correa, now the general manager at Henry’s, brought to the museum in a cart attached to a bike while wearing a “cow hood and cape.”
Things escalated from there.
“We brought it through the front door of SFMOMA,” Kronner says. “There were ten butchers, all female, there.”
This was part of a series of futurism-themed events at SFMOMA. Butchering and preparing the meat involved a conveyor belt, and visitors that night ate dishes like pâté in beet gelée served inside heart-shaped molds Kronner bought from a medical-supply company.
Anyway, after many successful pop-ups, Kronner opened a Kronnerburger restaurant on Oakland’s Piedmont Avenue in 2015. It closed after a fire this past February. Kronner would love to resurrect the Kronnerburger restaurant and take it to many cities, “anywhere where there’s access to similar product.”
“You can do it Portland, Seattle, Chicago, Austin, New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., wherever,” he says. “A burger is such an easy, accessible inroad to sustainable eating, or at least thinking about it.”
He hopes to open an outpost of Kronnerburger in L.A. next year.
Steve Brown, Niku Steak House
The Meat of the Matter: This fall, chef Steve Brown will open Omakase Restaurant Group’s Niku Steak House at the One Henry Adams development in San Francisco’s SoMa district. Brown, whose Cosecha pop-up series was born in San Diego and who has been taking his wagyu tasting dinners around North America, is excited to create “a modern American steakhouse with a Japanese influence.” He’ll be importing Japanese beef and dry-aging it on-site. He’ll have an elaborate tasting menu along with à la carte steaks and his riffs on steakhouse sides. Niku will ferment koji to create soy sauces and serve steaks with kimchi and other fermented vegetables.
“You’re not going to see mac-and-cheese,” says Brown, who adds that he has Michelin-star aspirations for Niku.
The steakhouse will have a top-of-the-line kitchen with Hestan appliances, a custom binchōtan grill, and a wood-fired yakinuku grill. There will be a dedicated facility for charcuterie-making, and Niku will serve its own housemade salamis and bacon. Plus, butcher Guy Crims will cut meat for both the restaurant and The Butcher Shop by Niku Steak House. That meat store, which will be next to Omakase Restaurant Group’s forthcoming Udon Time fast-casual noodle shop, will sell everything from A5 wagyu and off cuts of Kobe beef to domestic beef, lamb, and pork. There will also be a daily cutlet sandwich at a lunch counter that will double as a private dining area for the steakhouse.
Having both a restaurant and a butcher shop, Brown says, will allow Niku to do things like bring in an entire kobe steer from Hyōgo and utilize every single cut of meat.
“We’re going to have an endless amount of product that a normal restaurant wouldn’t have,” he says.
Unlikely (But True) Stories: Brown’s love for Japanese beef started with a competition at the KAABOO Del Mar music festival. He won that Chef’s Roll Rock’N Chef showdown in 2016.
Satsuma A5 wagyu “just happened to be the secret ingredient,” Brown says. “I really did fall in love with everything about it, the marbling, the fat flavor profile, the umami. It’s just a very special ingredient.
Soon after, Brown, who had already launched his roving Cosecha supper club, started serving wagyu dinners. One of the meals, which featured the Japanese beef paired with Suntory whiskey, was at San Diego bar Seven Grand. That bar doesn’t have a kitchen. So Brown rented some equipment and “built a kitchen on the street,” where he cooked and plated a nine-course dinner for 50 people.
In 2017, Brown got on a plane, on his way to Japan to tour wagyu prefectures with some other chefs and butchers. That plane was where he met Crims and Jackson Yu, the Michelin-starred chef who co-owns Omakase Restaurant Group. This led to Brown doing some wagyu dinners in San Francisco with Crims and Yu, which then led to the creation of Niku.
Pop-ups, like ones at San Diego’s Wild Willow Farm & Education Center, have taught Brown a lot about figuring things out in a hurry and cooking under unfamiliar circumstances. He says this has made him and his team so much stronger than they would be if they had just worked in traditional restaurants. But he’s ready to cook at a brand-new place where he has time to take his time.
At Niku, Brown will be able to interact with guests at a kappo-style counter. He’ll have access to more kinds of meat than he’s ever had. He’ll have the resources to hire a forager and showcase the best local ingredients. He’ll have a restaurant where he can patiently watch everything evolve, where he can “dip a whole rib eye in Japanese wagyu fat and age it for 200 days,” where he can try out different blends for a dry-aged burger he might serve at the bar.
“We’re going to be in the same spot every day,” says Brown, sounding like a happy man who’s still getting used to the concept of not having to pack up his stuff after he’s done cooking.