The owners of Panther City BBQ have now launched La Pantera Tacos y Mas for the after-hours crowds.
FORT WORTH, Texas — There’s no denying how sweet it is to take a risk and have it pay off. Or, in this case, less sweet; more smoky.
“We didn’t have any expectation, but we do know we put our heart and soul into our food,” said Chris Magallanes, one of the owners of Panther City BBQ.
WFAA first met the guys behind the popular Fort Worth BBQ joint back in July 2019. They’d left their corporate jobs and were slingin’ cue from a smoking-hot trailer outside the Republic Street Bar on Hattie Street.
Since then, the bar owners built them a permanent space and things have been great, as they serve BBQ from 11 a.m. until 7 p.m., or whenever they run out.
But Magallanes said he and his co-owner Ernie Morales quickly noticed something when they’d head into work to start cooking.
“We were coming in at 3 in the morning, just after the bar closes for the night,” he said, “seeing pizza boxes in the trash, Uber Eats boxes.”
Magallanes said he saw a business opportunity.
“That’s where La Pantera Tacos was born.”
That’s right; late-night street tacos, to be offered from the very same space as Panther City BBQ.
But, here’s the rub.
“Other than eating a lot of tacos, none of us really had a lot of taco experience,” Magallanes said.
But they knew they had great smoked meats and sauces. So along with Ernie’s brother Stephan Morales, their appointed “taquero,” they tasted tacos all over the Dallas-Fort Worth area while perfecting their own recipes. This year, they launched “La Pantera Tacos y Mas,” which opens shortly after Panther City closes, from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m.
They’ve already been written up in Texas Monthly.
“It’s kind of crazy to me, you know,” said Morales, who’d previously worked for a company that built police cars.
Now, people line up for late-night al pastor, tri-tip tacos and more. All the meat is smoked, just as you’d find it during the day.
But there is one thing that is disappearing.
“A lot fewer pizza boxes,” Magallanes said, laughing.
When I first wrote about Panther City BBQ in 2018, owners Chris Magallanes and Ernest Morales were still holding onto their old day jobs while trying to run a part-time barbecue truck. A few months later, they worked out a deal with their landlord, Brian Reising, who owns Republic Street Bar and the lot around it where the food truck was parked. He offered to construct a building for them if they’d sign a long-term lease. The pair agreed and made barbecue their full-time jobs.
Magallanes and Morales suffered through the long, hot summer of 2019 inside the sweltering food truck—their only brief moments of relief coming when the fireboxes in the smokers outside needed feeding. The shell of the building rose across the parking lot, but it seemed to taunt them as construction delays mounted. They were finally able to move in just before Halloween last year, at last granted temperature control.
The new building is divvied into three parts. There’s a covered dining area that seats about 64 at long picnic tables. Roll-down plastic sheeting encloses the sides when necessary. Two windows, one to place orders and another to retrieve them, look into the ample kitchen. Behind that is a screened-in pit room with three five-hundred-gallon smokers. Marcus Lopez, a recent hire with plenty of barbecue experience, keeps the smokers humming. It’s important work, especially now that this pit room produces barbecue for two restaurants.
After Panther City BBQ closes for the evening, the large barbecue menu is taken down and replaced with the small A-frame chalkboard for La Pantera Tacos y Mas. “Pantera” is Spanish for “panther,” which might be obvious to some, but I smacked my own forehead after finally making the connection. The late-night barbecue taco shop serves from 8 p.m. until 1 a.m. Magallanes said it will soon open earlier on Wednesdays and maybe Thursdays too. The name may be different, but everyone working at La Pantera is employed by Panther City BBQ, and all the barbecue for its tacos come out of the same smokers.
Late in the evening after a recent road trip, I detoured into Fort Worth for some of those tacos. I grabbed a beer inside the Republic Street bar and brought it out to the new dining area. Barbecue and tacos are also welcome inside the bar if you’d rather eat there. Stephan Morales, who started working for his brother Ernest in July, has run La Pantera since it launched a few weeks ago. He brought out one of every taco, all on corn tortillas made fresh daily by El Rancho Supermercado in Fort Worth. They were doubled up, as you’ll often find with street tacos, but a single tortilla was stout enough to hold the generous toppings. Just the salsa verde was available on the side, but Stephan Morales said more salsa recipes are in the works. A special tri-tip taco was topped with a lively chimichurri and cotija. The rest came with raw onions and cilantro.
Brisket may seem like the obvious choice here, but I loved the richness of the smoked beef cheek barbacoa. There are three different options for pork. I didn’t try the carnitas, but the pork belly was smoky, peppery, and decadently fatty. Chunks of pork steak, in al pastor marinade, brought a different texture and flavor, but it was hard to choose a favorite. At just $8 for four tacos, it’s easy enough to explore.
The most dangerous thing on the La Pantera menu is made by Stephan’s wife, Yasaira Zamora Morales. She fills empanadas with cheesecake. They are deep-fried to order and topped with cinnamon and sugar. I swore I’d only eat one of the three that came in a paper boat, but the crisp exterior and rich cheesecake had me going back for more.
When asked what prompted them to open a second concept when a barbecue operation alone already takes up so much time, Stephan said they saw an opportunity because of Republic Street Bar’s late hours. In the trash cans outside, they noticed “all kinds of Uber Eats packages and pizza boxes,” when they’d come in to cook barbecue, he said, so they figured why not offer the bar patrons a late-night food option. Magallanes said they considered using the old trailer as a taco truck, but then thought, “If we’re going to do the taco thing, let’s talk about doing it out of the building we have, instead of paying maintenance on a building and a food truck.” They put the truck up for sale, and it was gone in a week. They don’t miss it. Panther City BBQ does much of the prep for La Pantera by smoking the meats, while La Pantera employees prep sides and sauces for Panther City BBQ during any lulls during the evening.
I wanted to see the new building in the daylight, so I stopped by last Saturday for a tray of barbecue just as Panther City BBQ opened. A cup of elotes topped with chunks of smoked brisket, cotija, lime, and cilantro was pure Tex-Mex barbecue comfort food. It’s one of the few crossover items that appear on both Panther City’s and La Pantera’s menus. The rest of the tray was stunning. Pork belly burnt ends, spare ribs, and sliced brisket were all smoked beautifully and perfectly tender. The jalapeño poppers stuffed with the same pork belly burnt ends are just $10 for three. I already knew that Panther City BBQ was one of Fort Worth’s best, but it was amazing to see how their quality has increased just since opening this new building. And that’s despite producing nearly triple the amount of barbecue they were doing over the summer.
Now, with the sudden popularity of La Pantera, they already need more pit space. Magallanes said they’re talking with the landlord about expanding the pit room to allow for thousand-gallon smokers. Stephan said he expects the taqueria to get even busier once word gets out. “We’re actually in our own lane,” he said, because where else are you gonna get late-night barbecue tacos in Fort Worth? Luckily the only option is still a great one.