Oakland, CA

Horn Barbecue is worth waiting for

Clay Kallam

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Aren't you getting a little hungry right now?Jim Sullivan

First things first: You’re going to stand in line.

Horn Barbecue is only open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, and there’s no way to avoid a wait.

Then again, the wait is worth it, especially if you’re a barbecue aficionado. After all, Horn has become the best-known barbecue chef in America, with a profile in the New York Times, a brand-new cookbook and a perfectionist streak that makes his deceptively simple food spectacularly delicious.

So yes, even in an industrial area of downtown Oakland, with cars being loudly crunched into scraps just across the street, you’re going to stand in line. And though the tiny interior with the cowhide seats at the counter speaks of carefully thought-out design, the picnic tables on Astroturf over an asphalt alley is where you’ll most likely sit – and “glamor” is definitely not the word.

Still, you have to stand in line.

And why not? The food is simply that good, meticulously prepared in a variety of smokers, indoors and out, that deliver barbecue as you’ve always dreamed it should be – but have never come close to duplicating in the backyard.

And really, that’s one thing about barbecue – there’s always this feeling that if the coals are just right, and the meat is good, anybody can make it work. It’s not like building a French sauce from scratch, with all that mixing and scraping and stirring and spices. Barbecue is, well, meat and fire, and how hard can that be?

OK, it’s not hard to do good barbecue, barbecue that your family and friends think is great. In fact, that’s how Horn got started, trying to figure stuff out in his backyard. And his family and friends liked it, so he got himself a smoker, got down to work and got himself a pop-up gig at Ralph’s Bar in Tracy. He had the tent, and the smoke with that delicious scent drifting down the street – and no one came.

“I quit,” he said later, “for a day.”

Then he was back at it, pulling all-nighters monitoring the temperature in his smokers. Figuring out the perfect mix of spices. Alternately sweating and freezing as he pursued the perfect brisket, the perfect rib.

And like so many other chefs, he started working farmer’s markets, and honed his craft. Even though more and more people loved it, Horn wasn’t satisfied. “It’s not the best,” he said to himself. “It could be better.”

And it got better. And better and better and better, and now you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who knows more about smokers and flavor and barbecue than Matt Horn.

But Horn hasn’t settled down yet. He just opened Kowbird, a few blocks away from Horn Barbecue, and there he specializes in fried chicken sandwiches. (And yes, you’ll stand in line there too.) He’s looking to expand to San Francisco, among other places, and maybe someday there will be Horn Barbecues all over Northern California. There’ll be big parking lots, plenty of room inside and maybe even on-line reservations.

But until then, just accept it: You’re going to have to stand in line.

* * * * *

The wait isn’t nearly as long at one of my other favorite barbecue spots: Slow Hand in Martinez and Pleasant Hill.

Obviously, there are a lot of barbecue options out there, but owner Dan Frengs, like Horn, learned, as he says, “by cooking about a million briskets.” It’s safe to say all that effort paid off, so if the trip to Mandela Parkway to Horn Barbecue seems a little too daunting, Slow Hand is a great alternative.

And you know what’s coming: You don’t have to stand in line.

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Clay Kallam is a lifelong East Bay resident who spent several decades in local journalism -- and still writes for Diablo Magazine (among others). Over the years, he has covered just about every aspect of life in the Bay Area, from rock-and-roll to the arts to political coverage to food to sports. On the food front, he does not claim to be a critic, but rather someone who enjoys a good meal, a well-made drink and a nice red wine. As for sports, he has written for national publications (including Sports Illustrated and Slam) and covers girls' basketball across the nation for MaxPreps. He is a high school coach and a serious fan of the local teams -- and savored every minute of the Giants' and Warriors' championships. He graduated from Acalanes, UC Santa Barbara (ancient history) and Cal (philosophy). He lives in Walnut Creek with his wife Maggi, who takes many of the food photos. He appreciates his readers and is always happy to talk about anything he's written. His food experiences can be found at #dishdining on Instagram, and emails can be sent to claykallam@gmail.com.

Walnut Creek, CA
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