Nearly two full years since news first broke about famed pitmaster Matt Horn’s plans to roll out a second restaurant, the West Oakland chef is finally on the verge of pulling it off — damn the ongoing pandemic. Kowbird will open Friday, Jan. 14 with a menu of four fried chicken sandwiches, plus half-birds served with Texas toast, wings with fries and savory sides. Located at 1733 Peralta Street, this laid-back, retro-inspired space is a short walk from Horn’s BBQ base.
Since he began selling his slow-smoked meats at farmers markets in 2016, Horn has consistently proven his dedication to doing things the right way – the way that ensures his working product is not only undeniably delicious, but also made with thought and care for its community. For his popular barbecue pop-ups, that meant spending long hours in front of a custom, offset 500-gallon smoker commanding roaring flames and clouds of smoke. And when it finally launched the long-awaited brick-and-mortar Horn Barbecue, despite permitted delays and COVID-19, that meant adapting to takeout and alfresco dining to better protect diners and staff alike.
Now Horn is ready to spread his wings, opening his next restaurant with the same community ethos and attention to detail that has made him one of the biggest restaurant successes of the past two years. Yes, Kowbird is a fried chicken restaurant — but beyond that, it’s a soul food restaurant, says Horn, which draws inspiration from both its own family heritage and the history of chicken shacks. fried throughout the southern United States. “Chicken is soul, chicken is love,” says Horn. “And that being said, it’s kind of like the essence of who we are.”
Kowbird’s ‘small but mighty’ kitchen team includes head chef Adam Lawrence and kitchen manager Maurice McMair, both of whom have spent time at Horn BBQ. Fans may have tasted the Kowbird pop-ups; the original Southern Bird sandwich features chicken dusted with buttermilk and seasoned flour, topped with homemade pickles and “bird’s gravy” (Horn’s take on a classic throwback gravy) on an apple bun earth. Other riffs include the Honey Bird, finished with a honey and pickled mustard seed sauce, and the Early Bird, a breakfast riff with a thick Southern sauce and a fried egg.
There’s also the Hot Bird, a hot chicken sandwich that Horn calls a tribute to the Prince family, whose Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack contributed to the proliferation of hot chicken throughout the country. Of course, Horn puts his own stamp on the now ubiquitous dish: fermented chiles fuel a searing heat that’s smothered with sweet pickles and herb mayonnaise. Dried chilies seal the deal on a spicier sandwich than the version Horn made in the past. “It’s not going to be something you can’t enjoy, but it’s going to be pretty hot,” he said.
Diners can also order half chickens; six-piece chicken wing dishes, served with fries; fried chicken with buckwheat waffles and honey butter; and on Sundays, a fried, original or Nashville hot catfish sandwich. Accompaniments include a macaroni and cottage cheese loaded with havarti, provolone and a bit of gouda; pan-fried cabbage with farmhouse bacon; and vegan chicory salad with pumpkin seed vinaigrette. Horn says he’s particularly proud of the vegan sandwich, made with fried oyster mushrooms and topped with a bean “aioli” and carrot salad. Desserts are inspired by Southern traditions, including salted caramel apple with peanuts and pecan pie.
Horn says he spent a lot of time finding responsibly and sustainably raised chicken to fill the Kowbird kitchen. But true to its reputation for quality, care and relentless ambition, it already has bigger plans in the works: the chef says he’s “at the start” of acquiring a property in the La bay where he will eventually raise his own poultry for the restaurant. If all goes according to plan, he expects to close the property before the end of the year. More immediately, Horn says he will set up beehives at the restaurant to start producing his own honey.
The restaurant was once home to a restaurant called Pretty Lady, and Horn has endeavored to honor and preserve that history with the new design. Large black-and-white photos envelop the space, including one of a young farmer’s wife – said to be the restaurant’s new “pretty lady”. Horn also retained the restaurant’s horseshoe-shaped counter and the “funky green tile” in the kitchen. “Whenever I create a concept, we want to be considerate and respectful of the community,” says Horn. “We want our guests, when they come in and enjoy the food, to have a familiarity.” Diners will order at a register, with the option to take out food or sit at the counter or outside.
Horn says he will continue to monitor the viability of keeping the restaurant open for indoor dining. But as his evolving legacy as a restaurateur and chef continues to be shaped and somewhat defined by COVID-19, Horn sees the challenge as fundamental to his success. “In the face of adversity, we have to find a way to preserve,” says Horn. “It’s something that me and my team take seriously. It can be a little daunting, but we have to find a way forward. This is the raison d’être of the Horn brand.
Kowbird opens Friday, January 14 in West Oakland. Hours of operation are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday through Sunday.