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From tacos to tequila: Get to know some of the chefs and their experience with the annual Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival

By Rebecca ChristophersonMarch 6, 2024March 7th, 2024No Comments

From Tacos to Tequila

By Natalie Lozano Trimble
Photography by Jill Johnson

Five chefs grow with the annual Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival

Next month, more than 100 chefs will come together over the four days and five events of the 10th annual Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival to showcase their talents to more than 6,500 attendees. Although a handful will be first-time participants, many are returning and some have never missed a festival.

A lot has changed over the years for restaurants and attendees. This year, for the first time, guests will be able to see what chefs are serving and where their booth is on a map using the new Fort Worth Food + Wine Foundation app that follows the April 4-7 event.

But the weekend’s aim is about much more than delicious dishes. The festival is a fundraiser for the Fort Worth Food + Wine Foundation, which seeks to foster, celebrate and sustain the city’s food, beverage and hospitality community.

Much like the festival itself, the foundation’s investment in the city’s culinary future has evolved. In addition to the scholarships and cooking equipment for high school students, some of the funds raised now have a more direct impact on current restaurateurs, including stipends to offset the cost of participating in the festival and grants for employees facing hardships. Not surprisingly, some of the perks are intangible. 360West recently sat down with chefs from five local restaurants to see how their involvement in the festival has benefited them.

Tacos + Tequila: Chris Magallanes and Ernest Morales, Panther City BBQ

If you’re strategic with your weekend, your first and last bites of the festival can be from Panther City BBQ. For the first time, this Near Southside restaurant is going to have a booth at the festival’s kick-off event, Tacos + Tequila, on April 4, in addition to reprising their booth at its closing event, Ring of Fire, on April 7.

“We’ve always done the barbecue portion,” Chris Magallanes, co-owner, says. “They’ve asked us repeatedly [to participate in Tacos + Tequila], and we’re finally to where we’ve got a big enough crew to pull both of them off.”

This is the fourth festival for Chris and his co-owner Ernie Morales. “This is pretty much my favorite because it’s Fort Worth,” Morales says. “You’re seeing your city. When you’re doing other festivals, it’s not really your city, the people you grew up around.” Morales grew up in the Southside, the same neighborhood where their brick-and-mortar now resides.

Magallanes, also a Fort Worth native, met Morales while they were both working for an audio/visual company. They realized they shared a love for barbecuing in backyards and for family events. Initially, it was a handful of friends cooking together, but only Magallanes and Morales stuck it out over time. Their public launch was in the parking lot of the old Valero gas station on I-35 and FM 1187, which led to popups at Panther Island Brewing, Wild Acre Brewing and Keys Lounge. Panther City BBQ eventually opened a food truck at its current location in 2018 at 201 E. Hattie St. at Bryan Avenue on the Near Southside, before expanding to a brick-and-mortar in 2019.

This transition meant the two divided the responsibilities. “I’m more over the recipes [and] what goes into the product,” Morales says. “Then we talk about it together. He manages the finances, the payroll.” Making the transition from pop-ups to a restaurant “was crazy,” Magallanes says. “The cooking side was kind of natural because that’s what we love to do. But the back-end side — the financial, HR and paperwork — was eye-opening.”

It’s also a family affair, with their children working in various roles, and Magallanes’ wife, Wendy, managing the bar.

It makes sense that they’re expanding to a taco-centric event since one of their most popular menu items is Flaco’s Tacos. They’re named for Morales’ younger brother, whose nickname is Flaco. “A lot of people get them confused with birria tacos,” rich with chilis and spices, Morales says. “We put all that work into smoking the product — why dip it into something?”

For Panther City BBQ, participating in the festival provides an opportunity to network with other local chefs — Jon Bonnell was a highlight for Magallanes — and it’s led to catering gigs and collaborations.

Like many other restaurants, Panther City was able to benefit from the Fort Worth Food + Wine Foundation’s Employee Relief Fund. After the 2020 festival was canceled, the foundation began offering grants to restaurant employees who had their hours reduced or cut completely. Those efforts didn’t stop after the COVID-19 pandemic ended. The foundation continues to support employees facing unexpected hardships and has donated more than $110,000 to date.

The Main Event:
Braden and Yasmin Wages, Malai Kitchen

For Braden and Yasmin Wages of Malai Kitchen, joining the festival’s Main Event every year is an easy yes, especially since it’s held down the street from their Fort Worth location in The Shops at Clearfork.

The couple, who met in college, fell in love with the cuisine of Thailand and Vietnam while traveling the world. After working for Hillstone restaurants in Southern California and Dallas, they felt ready to open their own place. The first Malai Kitchen opened in Dallas in 2011 before expanding to Southlake in 2016 and then Fort Worth’s Shops at Clearfork in 2017. 

Their menu centers on Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, and they strive for authenticity in every recipe, which means they not only visit the region at least once a year, but they’ve started sending employees, too. Everyone who has worked for Malai Kitchen for three years is eligible for this benefit. So far, 18 employees have qualified. Malai covers a round-trip flight to Bangkok, Saigon or Hanoi, and includes a five-day stipend. “The employee can extend the vacation and travel internally as they wish,” Yasmin says. “We always help guide them with internal flights, restaurant suggestions, things to do, etc.” Adds Braden, “It’s a way to kind of give back, and it inspires.”

Another distinctive feature they’ve added is making their rice noodles from scratch, which is “very rare in the world,” according to Braden. The process began with sourcing equipment from Vietnam in 2021. “We didn’t start actually serving the noodles from the machine until the end of 2022,” Yasmin says. “We thought it would be so easy. ‘Rice flour, check, water, check’ but it was not.”

To produce the high-quality noodles they were looking for, the two realized they would need to import rice flour from Vietnam. Their persistence paid off, and now one location makes the flat and pho noodles for each restaurant and delivers them daily. “We still have about four other styles of noodles that we do not make in-house,” Yasmin says.

This commitment to creating as much as possible from scratch has been their aim from day one, and it ultimately boils down to wanting to share what they’ve experienced while traveling with others. 

Malai has been participating in the festival since 2018. “It’s great to get all of the best local restaurants together in one place,” Braden says. “We don’t get to spend time with those guys very often, so getting to catch up is awesome.” But it’s not just about the culinary camaraderie. “It’s amazing to see how many people at the festival love the restaurant,” he says. “We definitely look forward to it every year.”

Yasmin, who grew up in Fort Worth, also appreciates how the festival is a celebration of the city’s culinary evolution. “There’s so much great variety,” she says. “It’s not just a steak, barbecue and Mexican restaurant city anymore, and we’re thrilled to be part of that expansion!”

Rise + Dine: Rena Frost, Mac’s on Main

Mac’s on Main hasn’t missed a year since chef Rena Frost was invited in 2014 to participate in the festival, which means she’s seen the event evolve over the years from nine events spread over multiple locations throughout the city to its current iteration: five events over four days at the Heart of the Ranch at Clearfork. 

“It’s just wonderful to see all the new restaurants that are participating,” Frost says. “I love that the festival really focuses on independent places. … I think the smaller businesses really appreciate it. I did.”

When the festival started, Frost, who started with Mac’s in 1992 at its Midland location, had just bought out the original owner in 2011. Today, Frost and her husband own Mac’s on Main in Grapevine and Mac’s Bar & Grill in Arlington. Her brother, Harvey Cogdill, helps her run both locations and is the Grapevine restaurant’s general manager, which “works out well because I’ve always been his boss,” Frost said. The Arlington general manager, Colin Bailey, has worked for Mac’s since 1987, the year it opened. Frost attributes employee retention to the restaurant’s culture of trust and helping each other.

Initially, Frost participated in the festival’s Burgers, Brews, and Blues event before she switched to Saturday morning’s brunch event, Rise + Dine, “which actually makes more sense for me,” she says.

As one of the few restaurants coming from Grapevine, Frost appreciates the opportunity to connect with other chefs in the area. It’s “nice to meet other women,” she says. “I love the fact that there are more women now than [when] we started.”

Last year, the festival added a special section at the Ring of Fire highlighting women in local barbecue and featuring the Babes of Que podcast host, Betina Miller. “Who else does that?” Frost says. “I like the fact that we do that; I want to be a part of it.”

The foundation’s response during the COVID-19 pandemic endeared Frost even further. “I was never so proud to be part of it [as] when they did the relief fund,” she says. “I never had my doubts, but they really put their money where their mouth is.”

Recently, she has introduced a new concept, called The Hidden, a pop-up dinner whose name is a play on words, given it’s hidden within a private room at Mac’s. These rare evenings, held a handful of times a year, allow her to cook outside the expected fare and pair the food with special wines. Her first event featured Italian food. “I did a riff on a dessert for that dinner — a dingdong, with chocolate ganache and a white chocolate cream — and put it in a little lunch box and did our port in a thermos.”

The theme for March is French food. In May, the theme is Korean for Asian American and Pacific Islander Month, to honor Frost’s heritage.

“I’m half-Korean, so I’m going to have my mom come in and it’ll be modern Korean cooking,” Frost says. “My mom’s still probably going to do traditional, (and) I’ll do the modern take.” To find out about tickets to The Hidden, you can sign up for emails on Mac’s website.

Burgers, Brews, and Blues: Andrew Kelly and Joe Kelly, Kelly’s Onion Burgers

Kelly’s Onion Burgers was very new to the Fort Worth food scene when it first competed with Fort Worth legends like Fred’s Texas Cafe, Tommy’s Hamburger Grill and Rodeo Goat Fort Worth in 2022. Brothers Andrew and Joe had just launched their food truck in 2021 when they were invited to participate in Burgers, Brews, and Blues. Although most of the weekend’s events have evolved over the years, the burger-centric event has remained unchanged since the festival began in 2014. Judges and attendees still vote throughout the night, culminating in two winners each for burgers and beers — judge’s and fan favorites.

Although Kelly’s has not won yet, there have been a lot of benefits to participating. It’s allowed them to introduce their burger to new fans and generated repeat business. It’s especially helpful since some people are hesitant to commit to an onion burger.

“A lot of people are scared of them, especially because there’s a lot [of onion] on it,” Andrew says. “But the type of onions we use and the way we cook them — they’re actually a little sweet.”

Their menu is simple: a burger patty with onions smashed into the meat, with additional grilled onions served on top. Cheese is optional and fries are the only side. The onion burger is an homage to a specialty they discovered in Oklahoma.

“We grew up eating these with our family,” Andrew says. “I am actually from Oklahoma, but we go back every year for Christmas, and it’s been a tradition to go get them at a diner.” 

Oklahoma’s onion burger dates back to before the Great Depression, when adding onions allowed restaurants to stretch the meat, according to Andrew.

Before launching the truck, the brothers played in bands — “We have never been in the same band, always different ones,” says Andrew — and waited tables. “That’s kind of where we learned all of our stuff.”

Launching the food truck is “one of the craziest things that me, my brother and my dad have done for sure,” Andrew says. Their dad is a silent partner, while the two brothers run the business. “It’s always me and my brother on the truck. He takes the orders and makes the fries, and I make the burgers,” Andrew says. “There’s no one I’d rather work with.”

Their first pop-up in 2021 was at Born Late Records on Race Street. Although they’ve taken their truck to a lot of public events since, they’ve lately been booking a lot of catering. This might make them harder to catch but not impossible. “We do go all over the place, but we’re at Turning Point Beer a lot,” Andrew says. “We kind of do all the breweries, just kind of sporadic.”

Ring of Fire: Derrick Walker, Smoke-A-Holics BBQ

Derrick Walker can trace his love for barbecue to Donie, east of Waco. “When I was a kid, my grandad had the first pull-behind trailer I’d ever seen. He’d always barbecue.” His grandparents also lived off what they farmed, frying catfish from their property in lard harvested from the pigs they raised. Pork and beef were also sourced and barbecued on-site.

“I was always infatuated with barbecue,” Walker says. After years of cooking for friends and family, Walker was inspired by the reality television show BBQ Pitmasters to look for a local competition he could participate in. After a quick Google search, he discovered one in Irving that weekend at the Elks Lodge.

“Barbecue looked very different back then,” Walker says. “There were 70 teams, but I think I was the only black person there.”

Participants invited him to try a bite of what they’d brought. “I think that’s what made me fall in love, more than just the food, it’s the culture.”

When he started offering his barbecue to the public at popups, his popularity meant frequently upgrading. A 150-gallon smoker turned into a 250-gallon. Then a 500-gallon smoker and two fryers, since “we were doing way more than just barbecue.” Their current menu reflects this commitment to creativity. In addition to the expected platters, you can pick up brisket nachos, loaded cornbread and the current special, King Beef, a hot link on a toasted bun with chopped brisket, queso, shredded cheese, pickled onions and banana peppers.

Creative offerings and continual experimentation are what set Smoke-A-Holics apart from other local barbecue places. Unsurprisingly, there are quite a few in a city nicknamed “Cowtown.”

But Walker doesn’t see anyone as direct competition. “We all do our own thing, and there’s something for everybody. And the funny thing is, you don’t see that with other types of restaurants.”

His connection to another restaurant, Panther City BBQ, is what led him to the Food + Wine Festival. Walker’s first year was giving a hand to Panther City buddies during the Ring of Fire event. The next year, Smoke-A-Holics signed up. Walker described the festival as “No pressure, just a fun time with a bunch of Fort Worthians.”

Not only did the festival introduce him to a new audience — “a lot of people who didn’t know us, the very next day they were here,” Walker says — but it also connected him to Blackland Distillery. He partnered with Blackland on recipes and even joined owner Markus Kypreos as a guest on an episode of The Bourbon Road podcast.