Few bells and whistles decorate the interior of Mark BBQ, a food truck-turned-brick and mortar restaurant at 34 Park St. Tarps cover picnic tables atop a checkered floor. Large chalkboards line the back wall with dispatches from children. A paper towel holder sits on the front counter beside the cookbooks of BBQ legends.
The reserved presentation mimics what owner Darrell Langworthy calls the “essence” of making Texas-style barbecue, in which pizzazz and flair take a back seat to tried-and-true methods of generations past: “Low and slow, and keep it simple.”
Langworthy, 39, served for 12 years in the military and is a Vermont Army National Guard and
Vermont Air National Guard veteran. He began his professional barbecue journey after years as a chef, dating back to days cooking up dishes an Italian restaurant in Lake George, N.Y., where he worked every summer growing up.
He ran Mark BBQ out of a food truck at the old Road ResQ building in the Five Corners this summer and planned to wait at least another season before opening up a storefront. But business was booming, and customers were interested in year-round barbecue, so when he stumbled across a vacant space less than a mile down the road, he knew it was time.
With the help of friends and family, Langworthy renovated the space to inspire a vibe ripped from the Lone Star State. Original, framed posters from his father-in-law’s collection find a grinning Willie Nelson looking over the dining space beside a set of handmade barn doors.
His inspiration, and his restaurant’s namesake, is his late father-in-law, Mark Ivey, who introduced him to Texas-style barbecue years ago. Ivey died two years ago after Langworthy started purchasing his equipment.
“He left his mark on so many people, including myself, that I want to [now] leave our mark on people with great food and a sense of community,” Langworthy said.
Langworthy traveled to Texas many times during his military service and networked with established BBQers, whom he still contacts regularly for tips on the trade. He started trying out recipes a dozen years ago, and after about six years, found the right combination. Langworthy has seen his customer base undergo a similar learning curve.
“When we first opened, it was pulled pork, pulled pork and ribs. That was what was selling,” he said. “We had to give away samples of brisket.”
Now, that’s mostly what he sells. One Friday earlier this month, he cooked almost 350 pounds. It was sold out before 7:30 p.m.
In the BBQ world, sellout days are the pinnacle of success, even though customers who arrive after the rush may think it just means poor planning. But since some pieces of meat can take up to 14 hours to cook, when it’s gone, it’s gone.
“If you show up and we’re sold out, that’s not a bad thing. Come back tomorrow, because it’s good and everybody wanted to get some,” Langworthy said.
Langworthy said BBQ joints have started popping up more frequently across the country, and while Essex has a handful within an hour’s drive, he feels his method stands out among the rest. That boils down to understanding barbecue’s longstanding tradition – and not trying to reinvent the pig.
“Those that try to overdo it – change it too much – don’t have a lot of success,” he said. “You see that in Vermont sometimes: places that are trying to make Vermont barbecue, instead of make great barbecue in Vermont.”
(Asked if that meant too much maple syrup, he explained one of his best sauces includes the beloved state export, “but maybe you don’t have to drown everything in it.”)
Langworthy rang in his first official day in the restaurant business on October 13 by picking up a win at the Essex Jct. Parks and Recreation’s first-ever Battle of the BBQ. He prides himself on efficiency, noting most orders are filled in under a minute, and proclaims no one should ever have to wait over an hour for BBQ – unless you’re waiting in line, that is.
But Langworthy’s aspirations go beyond food. He hopes customers embrace the simplicity and feel welcome in his restaurant. He hopes people come in as strangers and leave as friends.
“Maybe they’ve lightened somebody’s day up a little bit. Maybe they found someone they can help. Or maybe they found the help they needed,” he said. “I think you get that from a sense of community.”