Wyatt Fields grew up surfing in El Granada, California, just south of San Francisco. In his mid-twenties, he first attempted the infamous and punishing waves of Mavericks, which he has since surfed dozens of times. When the winter swells begin off the coast, you can see them from the top floor of the building that houses Breakwater Barbecue, which Fields opened in his hometown in 2020.

Way over on the other side of the bay, in an industrial West Oakland neighborhood, Matt Horn opened his highly acclaimed Horn Barbecue the same year. The two are friends, having commiserated during drawn-out permitting processes and then during the process of opening a restaurant in the first year of a pandemic. Despite the contrast between their settings, the two restaurants have striking similarities, including the fact that they bring Texas-style barbecue to the Bay Area.

Horn was named a Food & Wine Best New Chef in 2021, and the following year, Horn Barbecue was nominated for Best New Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation. The Horn Barbecue cookbook, released in 2022, is a finalist for this year’s International Association of Culinary Professionals cookbook awards, and the Michelin Guide has bestowed a Bib Gourmand on the restaurant. Needless to say, my visit to Horn Barbecue came with high expectations.

I was second in line twenty minutes before opening on a Thursday morning, so I walked around back to find three offset smokers—one built by Horn and two more from Harper PitWorks, in Costa Mesa—and a direct-heat BQ Grill for the Saturday-only whole hog special. The offsets were burning locally harvested oak and almond wood. The scene didn’t look much different from that in a Texas pit room, which was a surprise, because I assumed the regulations in California for wood-burning smokers would be arduous. Horn said permitting for the cooking equipment wasn’t a problem once he stopped “calling them smokers, and [called] them wood-burning ovens,” he explained.

Once the restaurant doors opened, I noticed that the man working the block knew his way around a brisket. He protected the cut ends of beef between orders to keep them juicy, and he sliced carefully so as not to provide more than I asked for. At $40 per pound (the all-natural beef comes from Schmitz Ranch), I appreciated the careful portioning. The single slice of fatty brisket was smoky, juicy, and tender. A brush of sauce on the spareribs was on the heavy side, and they were a bit overcooked, but the sausage was impressive. Horn credits his pitmaster Trinidad González with making all the links, nearly a thousand per week. The jalapeño-cheese version I got had that perfect snap, with the cheese oozing from every juicy slice and the jalapeños providing just the right amount of burn.

The gentleman in front of me in line suggested I try the chicken, so I added a half bird to my tray. It was well seasoned and smoked until just done, so the white meat was still moist. Horn said they smoke several batches throughout the day to keep the chicken fresh. Sides of sweet and smoky pit beans and savory collard greens were great complements, but don’t leave the mac and cheese off your order—the amount of cheese likely doubles the size of the pasta shells.

Horn’s success hasn’t come without controversy. An SFGATE article from last year made it sound like the restaurant was experiencing financial difficulties, but Horn said those issues are now behind him. He hired a culinary director and a chief operations officer. “It made me tighten things up,” Horn said. He’s been able to parlay his barbecue success into two new restaurants: Kowbird, a fried chicken joint he opened last year just down the street from Horn Barbecue, and Matty’s Old Fashioned, a burger spot he debuted this year in downtown Oakland.

Those responsibilities mean he can’t spend as much time at the barbecue joint, but, he said, “as a business owner and operator, you can’t be stuck on Lucille [the name of Horn’s first smoker] and stuck on the block. You need to train people and empower people.” The restaurant’s location comes with its challenges (Horn said they had to replace a broken window the day after my visit), but he’s dedicated to the neighborhood. “We put a business here to try to impact the community,” Horn said. He also hinted a second location is likely, and his hometown of Fresno is on the list of possible sites.

Wyatt Fields outside Breakwater Barbecue.
Wyatt Fields outside Breakwater Barbecue. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn
A spread from Breakwater Barbecue.
A spread from Breakwater Barbecue. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

Closer to the coast, Fields was cooking for catering gigs when he first heard of Horn in 2019. Horn had asked for help running an upcoming pop-up, and Fields arrived on-site towing a smoker. They cooked together the whole day and have been friends ever since. Fields actually got his restaurant open before Horn’s, just a week before the COVID-related lockdowns went into effect. The accolades have rolled in more slowly at Breakwater Barbecue, but this year bought two surprises. The first was being one of six California barbecue joints recommended by the Michelin Guide, and the other was recognition in the same guide for the burger Fields added to the menu six months ago.

That burger is spectacular. Fields uses brisket trim for the thick patties. He calls it a semi-smash because the patty is smashed down onto the griddle and left to brown but is thicker than a traditional smash burger. Chopped smoked brisket goes on top, along with American cheese, grilled onions, pickles, and shredded lettuce, and it’s all served on a soft Martin’s potato bun.

The sliced brisket isn’t bad either. The seasonings are simple, but the salt cascades down into every slice along with the rendered fat. The bark was jet black with a clean smoke flavor from the blend of almond and oak, just like at Horn. Fields said he thinks of his brisket as Texas-style, but not really the rest of the tray. I begged to differ, given the snap of the spicy links made from 90 percent brisket and 10 percent pork-rib trim. And the sweet glaze on Breakwater’s tender spareribs is the norm for newer joints in Texas these days. I didn’t try the Carolina-style pulled pork with mustard-based “Gold Rush” barbecue sauce, but I did love the white sauce with a horseradish bite that came alongside the smoked chicken quarter.

Breakwater’s mac and cheese is too light to compare to Horn’s, but I loved the addition of green apple and cilantro to the creamy slaw and the combination of black-eyed peas with Swiss chard and bits of smoked sausage in the seasonal “Beans & Greens.” One of the best things on the tray was an unassuming block of cornbread. Its density made it look dry, but the high butter and sugar content gave it a texture similar to that of the French almond cakes known as financiers. I could have easily filled up on cornbread alone.

Fields said he needs more space to accommodate the restaurant’s growth, but for now he’s trying to expand the menu (he recently added smoked cod and salmon) and cook enough meat for brisket and pork sandwiches for the counter he just opened inside Levi’s Stadium, home to the 49ers.

Donning a San Francisco Giants ball cap, Fields talked with me outside the restaurant next to his new thousand-gallon smoker, built by Red Devil Smokers. It was easy to spot, parked out on the street next to the trailer-mounted Harper PitWorks offset with which he opened the joint with. Seeing those smokers proudly displayed in front of a coastal California barbecue joint brought me some hope for the spread of all-wood barbecue cooking across the country.

“That’s the culture we’re trying to bring to the Bay Area,” Fields said, noting the new faces his food is bringing to town. “We’re getting some barbecue tourists now, which is kinda cool,” he added. As one of those tourists, I can say with confidence that with Fields and Horn, the Bay Area now has some destination-worthy barbecue.