By Romaree Herbert,
In the Five Points Neighborhood, hidden behind a funky, oversized wooden door and a cleverly constructed wall with cacti sits a refurbished old home, turned into a charming Oaxacan-inspired restaurant called Casa Pantera. What really stood out in my mind was the superb customer service that we received as we arrived, were greeted, and waited to be seated to partake in the exceptional dining experience. From the host, to the waitstaff and owners, all were engaging, friendly and took the time to explain the distinct items on the menu.
Casa Pantera, located at 3015 Pershing Dr opened on July 15, 2022, and currently have forty-eight members on the team. The owners are Austin Allen (also general manager), John Espitia (also a manager), Will Tanner, (Allen’s first business partner and friend) and Santiago Estrada. Estrada is also Casa Pantera’s chef and got his training right of high school, doing an apprenticeship abroad that led to Culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu.
One of Allen’s best friends, Charles, helped them accomplish the design of the place and with all the pieces set, “what you see at Casa Pantera has an Oaxacan soul with influences from coastal Mexican communities and Mexico City, “said Allen.
Austin was inspired to open this type of restaurant after he and his wife spent a significant amount of time traveling in Mexico pre-and-post pandemic and fell in love with the culture. “We decided we wanted our next business venture to be an expression of Mexico that we do not normally see up here along the border. We wanted to be viewed in a different light to give ourselves a chance to compete in a market that already has many Mexican expressions,” explained Allen.
Austin Allen grew up on the westside of El Paso and spent his whole life in this community, He attended UTEP, working as a server during his college years and has been in the hospitality field since. His first business was a bar called the Black Market. Next, he opened Lowbrow Palace (which was sold to the Splendid Sun team), Palomino Tavern, Star City Kitchen, (which closed in 2014) and Love Buzz.
I had not heard of Casa Pantera, but when my well-cultured Mom was visiting here from Los Angeles last year, she already knew all about this restaurant and suggested we go try it. At that time, it was reservations only, and when I tried to make one, they were booked out for a month.
A few weeks later, after my mom went back to L.A., I finally was able to reserve a table and was overly delighted by what I experienced. With its indoor/outdoor concept, large patio filled with greenery, the rich aromas coming from woodburning grill, one feels like they have stepped out of El Paso and onto the Mayan Riviera Coast. I immediately had many questions, and the gracious host was happy to answer them. She took us to our table inside and introduced us to our knowledgeable waiter Shawn, who explained that everything is sourced locally, and they use Niman Ranch USDA Prime hand-cut steaks and chops.
Shawn seated us, brought us our menus suggested a few popular cocktails to try. I chose the Frozen Blood Orange Margarita, which was a perfect blend of sweet and tart, smooth, icy, and refreshing. My dining companion tried the Michoacana Mule which consisted of Banane du Bresil, Pineapple Rum and lime. This drink was creamy with a vivid banana flavor.
A few appetizers were suggested, and we decided to share the Nixtamalized Heirloom Corn Tamal, hand constructed with butternut squash and mushrooms, salsa macha and pickled onions. The tamal was an exceptional vegetarian combination, every bite melting in my mouth. We also tried the Mahi Mahi tostada which had a fresh, crisp, zesty flavor, lightly topped with guacamole, it was a euphoric combination.
The Branzino Zarandeado fish was served whole, grilled, and covered in zesty and smoky sauce and served with hand-pressed heirloom corn tortillas, an herb salad and salsa cruda. The Wood Grilled Octopus was another adventurous try, and with the help of the server describing all the meticulous preparation that was put into it; including marinating in wine and then being roasted over the grill. He insisted it was something we had to experience, and his suggestion was right on.
We also tried to USDA Prime Bone-In New York Strip served medium-rare right from the woodburning grill. Marinated in beef fat butter, maldon, sea salt flakes and charred cioppolini onions and chives, these tender slices of steak sizzled with perfection.
Each side dish we tried was tasty, flavorful, and seasoned perfectly, from the Oaxacan black beans to the crispy brussels sprouts. I have not ever had a side dish compete with the main entree until now.
For dessert, we savored over a perfectly blended sweet and spicy brownie made with mole spices and topped fresh vanilla bean gelato. The fiery chocolate was balanced so well with the creaminess of the gelato and was the ideal cumulation to the evening.
I welcomed all the information about the different components of every dish we were served especially because so many of the unique offerings. It was explained to us that all staff are given each entree to try to best describe and give recommendations to the patrons. This is something I was grateful to hear about because these special touches are not seen in most establishments and is another thing that sets Casa Pantera apart.
When I asked Austin what his favorite items were, he explained that it changes all the time, but for a guests first time, Allen suggests trying the tamal. “It is an extremely labor-intensive item that we feel does a fantastic job of expressing who we are and what we are about from a food perspective, Allen explained. “As for the cocktails, the Besitos Pantera is a good one to start with, tart, balanced and blended with passion fruit, habanero, citrus, and mezcal,” he said.
He went on to explain that they are extremely specific on our ingredient sourcing and collaborate with farmers who raise their product with pride and integrity. The menu has minor changes daily depending on the availability of items.
Chef Santiago takes pride in his food and each of the servers bring the cuisine to life with their words and genuinely want guests to try each dish. While speaking with Austin Allen, I could feel his passion and love this new endeavor and labor of love. “My life revolves around Casa Pantera; I live and breathe this animal day in and day out from the moment I wake up!” exclaimed Allen.