My son rolled down the window as we pulled into an empty parking lot of the Republic Street Bar in Fort Worth. “It smells like barbecue,” he said approvingly. Expecting a line on a sunny Saturday morning, we had arrived a little before opening at Panther City BBQ, which operates the food truck beside the bar. Co-owner Chris Magallanes assured me the crowds do come, but usually around the noon hour. After weeks of foul weather, he was hoping for a big day to help pay off the shiny, week-old offset smoker parked behind the truck.

Panther City BBQ (the name is an homage to Fort Worth’s “Panther City” nickname) started serving barbecue out of the food truck in January after Republic Street Bar, which owns the truck, announced it was up for grabs when another barbecue vendor called it quits. “It was a bad time of year to open a food truck,” Magallanes says, but he felt like they needed to jump on the opportunity. He, along with his partner, Ernest Morales, had found success on the competition circuit and as part-time barbecue vendors, but this is their first permanent spot. Some barbecue nostalgia comes with the site, which is where Heim BBQ launched its flourishing business—Panther City BBQ even includes a Heim homage on the menu.

Panther City BBQ
Pork belly poppers are among the best BBQ bites of the year.

Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

“They made it so popular, and they’re so good at it,” Magallanes says of Heim’s famous pork belly burnt ends. Panther City is serving its own version, with plenty of similarities to Heim’s, but it’s gone a step further with the pork belly poppers. They were advertised three for $5 on a sheet of butcher paper taped up next to the menu. It’s easily the best deal at the truck and deserves a spot on the permanent menu. A half jalapeño is filled with cream cheese and a cube of pork belly burnt end, then wrapped in bacon before a final smoke. It’s genius. The thin bacon created a crisp exterior, while the burnt end underneath was more yielding and juicy. The seeds have been removed from the jalapeños, so the flavor of the pepper came through. It was one of the best bites of barbecue creativity I’ve had this year.

They weren’t the only good deal on the menu. Prime smoked brisket was $18 a pound, and a generous three-meat plate is just $16. Both the fatty and lean brisket were well-cooked, tender, and moist. It’s certainly in the upper echelon of Fort Worth brisket, although I would have liked a little more smoke flavor. Huge spare ribs needed more time in the smoker to tenderize, but that could be chalked up to the new smoker. I liked the juicy pulled pork better. It gets a squirt of vinegar sauce before serving and is good on its own or as a sandwich. I added some of the pork onto the smoked bologna sandwich, which needed some more oomph.

Panther City BBQ

Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

Now that it has a new smoker, Panther City is planning to modify its old cabinet smoker into a dedicated sausage cooker. The owners hope to make their own links, but for now they have a solid duo of jalapeño/cheese and black pepper sausage from Syracuse Sausage in Ponder. For sides, there’s an excellent red-skinned potato salad with chunks of celery. The creamed corn is very thick, more like gravy corn, with a sprinkle of cheese over top. I’d recommend the mac and cheese (which is really shells) instead—just eat it first; it’s extra cheesy, but also turns to concrete if allowed to cool. Finish the meal off with a cup of classic banana pudding, which was the only dessert available.

There’s a lot to like about this Fort Worth newcomer, and the pork belly burnt ends are just the start. Magallanes said they’ve tried to shake off the comparisons to Heim given the location and that signature menu item. I don’t think it’s anything they should shy away from. Heim BBQ is the current gold standard of Fort Worth barbecue, and Panther City BBQ is now their closest competition in the city.

Panther City BBQ

201 E Hattie St., Fort Worth
817-300-3743
Thur-Sat 11-7, Sun 12-4
Pitmasters: Chris Magallanes and Ernest Morales
Method: Oak and hickory in an offset smoker
Year opened: 2018