Pop-Up BBQ Legend Is Opening His First Restaurant, and It's a Brisket Wonderland
Matt Horn's new brick and mortar, Horn Barbecue, will give Central Texas-style meats a permanent home in Oakland.
When barbecue pop-up sensation Matt Horn opens his Oakland brick-and-mortar restaurant in the coming weeks, you can expect the crowds to flock for his Central Texas-style brisket. That supple and spectacular dry-rubbed brisket, smoked for 16 to 18 hours over California white oak, will no doubt be the main event for a lot of guests. But there will also be many other meats sold by the pound and in sandwiches as Horn demonstrates his range and reverence for American barbecue.
He’ll have turkey, chicken, pulled pork, and pork ribs at the West Oakland restaurant known as Horn Barbecue. He’ll make hot links and also beef-and-garlic sausages that pay homage to Texas pitmaster Robert Patillo. On Saturdays, he’ll serve big beef ribs and whole-hog barbecue. Horn and his wife, Nina, will prepare sides like mac and cheese, pit beans, potato salad, collard greens, slaw, and black-eyed peas.
“It’s a collection of stuff that we collectively grew up on,” says Horn, who was raised in California’s Central Valley but had grandparents with Oklahoma roots. “It’s just natural. My grandmother used to butcher hogs and cook hogs in the ground. My grandfather would also do a lot of pork. As a kid, I would eat pulled-pork sandwiches or hot-link sandwiches.”
That was Horn’s first barbecue influence. When he started smoking his own meat, he went down a rabbit hole as he learned about Texas barbecue. He got really good at making his own barbecue. He started selling meat at a farmers’ market in 2016 and then began doing Bay Area pop-ups. Word spread, and his pop-ups eventually had lines with hundreds of people.
During his last pop-up this past August (at the Hangar 1 vodka distillery in Alameda), Horn and his wife realized they had “outgrown the model.” They had hired more staff to cut meat and deal with the line, but there was no way to avoid multi-hour waits when more than 500 people showed up. The pop-up started at 11 a.m., and one woman arrived to line up at 5:30 a.m. (She read a book to pass the time.) Guests were grilling their own food and playing board games while they were in line. Horn remembers talking to his wife about how there was nothing else to prove with their pop-ups. Opening a restaurant had to be the next move.
And now, at a restaurant in the space that previously housed Tanya Holland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen, Horn wants to display reminders of how he got here and what matters most to him. There are photos of his early days at the farmers’ market in Tracy. There are also family pictures that include shots of his children hanging out while he smoked meat.
He says what he’s about to do at Horn Barbecue is “bigger than creating great food.” He’s completely aware that he’s a black man who’s taken over the site of what was an iconic black-owned restaurant in a predominantly black neighborhood. He feels a responsibility here. And when Horn says he’s doing this “for the culture,” he also means that he wants to honor all the black pitmasters who came before him, like Kansas City pioneer Henry Perry.
“A lot of these people don’t get the credit they deserve,” Horn says. “A lot of them are forgotten and overlooked. This is about preserving a legacy. It’s paying respect to those who paved the way for me.”
Legacy is something he’s discussed with his friend Bryan Furman, the black Atlanta pitmaster who was named a 2019 Food & Wine Best New Chef. Horn also mentions a wonderful conversation he recently had with Charleston whole-hog icon Rodney Scott, the black pitmaster who won a 2018 James Beard Award. Howard Conyers, a black rocket scientist who works for NASA and is also a formidable pitmaster, has talked to Horn at length as well.
Horn knows that barbecue can break down barriers. He knows that barbecue is for everyone and that barbecue is a community. He often texts Texas barbecue royalty like Wayne Mueller, who is always generous with advice.
Two of Horn’s close friends are L.A. barbecue stars who also started by cooking in backyards and then became pop-up sensations. Burt Bakman, the man behind Trudy’s Underground Barbecue and Slab, is an Israeli immigrant. Andrew Muñoz, who runs Moo’s Craft Barbecue with his wife, Michelle, is a Mexican-American meat maven. These pals are collectively the new face of California barbecue.
“Barbecue is the great unifier,” Horn says. “Especially when you’re dealing with the climate of America right now, it’s beautiful where you have people from all walks of life coming together. It’s a whole family dynamic. We laugh, we joke. We’re always available to one another. We gather around this fire that drives us, that consumes us.”
Barbecue in 2019 is about rewriting the playbook, and that's exactly what Horn plans to do. He's already thinking about expanding his menu as he plays around with oxtails and lamb.
“That’s the beautiful thing about barbecue,” he says. “It can change. Yeah, I can pay respect to the culture and those who came before me. But if you look at where barbecue is going, it’s a beautiful thing that’s taking place, and I’m grateful to be part of it.”