Might get up to 102, 103 degrees today, on this viciously sunny Saturday afternoon on the Near Southside. The people gathered at the Panther City BBQ food truck are undeterred, though. When it comes to good barbecue, Fort Worthians will gladly – proudly, even – brave such weather.
Over the past few weeks, more and more ’cue aficionados have discovered the joys of Panther City owners Chris Magallanes and Ernest Morales’ expertly smoked meats and creative sides such as brisket-topped elote, thanks to good word of mouth and a positive review penned by Daniel Vaughn, known by many as the BBQ Snob. With more than 100,000 followers on Instagram and Twitter, the barbecue editor for Texas Monthly can help boost a barbecue ‘biz in a single swipe.
“But he came at the worst time imaginable,” Magallanes says, laughing. “We were out late the night before, celebrating my daughter’s 21st birthday, so we were running behind on everything. It’s kinda funny ‘cuz Ernie jokingly says, ‘I betcha anything he’s coming today,’ like, you know, of all the days. And then, of course, he shows up.”
Perhaps illustrating the first-rate quality of Panther City’s food, even on a shaky day, Vaughn wrote a favorable review. Specifically, he zeroed in on its pork belly poppers, an amped-up version of Heim Barbecue’s popular pork belly burnt ends. Panther City’s rendition consists of a jalapeño pepper stuffed with cream cheese and a pork belly burnt end, then wrapped in bacon and smoked. Magallanes calls it their tribute to the Heims, who started out in the same spot where Panther City resides, in the open lot next to Republic Street Bar.
“He called the poppers ‘genius.’ This, from a guy who probably eats barbecue nearly every single day,” Magallanes says. “We were just blown away.”
Maybe more than an honor, it was validation. The two left behind good day jobs in the audio-video technology industry to focus on a passion both had nurtured for years.
Morales is a lifelong Fort Worthian whose family has ties to two of the city’s most well-known restaurants. His grandfather was the chef at Colonial Country Club more than 25 years, and Joe T. Garcia was his grandmother’s stepfather. “That’s where my love of cooking comes from,” he says. He also had family in Lockhart, the Bible Belt of Texas barbecue, and he fondly recalls time spent at Kreuz Market and Black’s BBQ; at the ripe age of 16, he worked at Angelo’s here in Fort Worth.
Magallanes grew up in West Texas and Austin before his family settled in Fort Worth. He, too, developed a taste for barbecue at a young age. “My family owned a business in east Austin, and next door was this great little barbecue joint,” he says. “I may have spent more time in there than I did at my family’s business.”
Morales was already working the competitive barbecue circuit when he met Magallanes, who hired him to help out with an audio-video business. The two meshed instantly, and soon Magallanes was tagging along on competitions and, eventually, catering gigs.
“It got to the point where we had to decide,” Magallanes says. “Do we keep our day jobs and just do this on the weekends, like we’d been doing, or do we try to make a living at it?”
They chose the latter, knowing it wouldn’t be easy. Since landing the spot outside of Republic Street Bar in January, their lives have been turned upside down. Up late, up early, they’re there, smoking brisket, sausage, ribs and other meats up to 12 hours a day, Wednesday through Sunday. But in those few months, they’ve already made their mark in Fort Worth’s barbecue scene – and they’re already plotting their next move.
“It would be great to open a brick-and-mortar,” Magallanes says. “That’s definitely what we’re working toward.”