Jeremy Archer was ready to leave the barbecue game and go back to his corporate IT job when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. He had opened Archer BBQ in Cedar Park, which he described as “a little shack in a parking lot,” a year earlier, and he could see a restaurant shutdown looming when his lease renewal came due. He was resigned to putting his dream on hold, but one of his regular customers, Brandon Reinoehl, changed his mind. Archer remembered him saying, “You can’t give this up. You need to keep going.” They agreed to partner up, and they found a former coffee shop in Liberty Hill, northwest of Austin, called Agape Java. They changed the second half of the name and opened Agape BBQ in October 2020.

While Archer and Reinoehl hope the mouths of their customers are agape after a bite of their barbecue, the name is from the Greek word, pronounced “uh-gop-ay.” It’s a commonly used term in Christianity to describe love, usually God’s unconditional love for humans. Archer felt the name fit their business model, so he kept it, along with most of the coffee shop’s former employees and all of its coffee equipment. Archer described the restaurant’s mission as “making sure everybody feels loved when they come in, loved when they go out, and hopefully they had a good experience in between with the food.” After a meal there, I can tell you the in-between part is pretty darn good.

The love I experienced was the kind often shown to food critics who have been recognized, so I couldn’t be certain of its sincerity. Regardless, a sign on the door advertising the new pickle-brined smoked chicken was a message straight to my heart. Archer uses pickle juice to brine chicken quarters overnight. In the morning, they’re patted dry, seasoned with salt and pepper, and smoked on the upper rack, which is the smoker’s hot spot. My chicken was incredibly juicy, with a crisp skin that’s often sacrificed by wet brining, and the pickle-juice flavor came through without being overwhelming.

Archer tried pickle brining turkey breast as well, but it wasn’t as successful. His current method of cooking turkey is an odd one. He smokes the turkey breasts until done, chills them overnight, then reheats them to 145 degrees for serving. It sounds like this would dry out the turkey breast, but the result is actually quite tender. The bowls of brisket chili and pinto beans I tried had also been made the day prior by design, and I wouldn’t change a thing on either. The chili was dense enough to eat with a fork, and would go well with the green chile mac and cheese. As for the beans, I found myself tipping the bowl up so I could drink the juice. Made with chicken stock, onions, tomatoes, peppers, and big chunks of bacon, the beans were a bit creamy, and reminiscent of bean soup rather than the bland pinto beans often offered at Texas barbecue joints.

The pork spareribs lacked color, and from the looks of them I assumed they’d be bland. Not so. The peppery rub was balanced with a little sweetness and plenty of post oak smoke. The brisket bark was well developed—perhaps a bit too salty—and the slices from both the point and flat were juicy. I enjoyed dunking bites of brisket in the bean juice more than in the cumin-heavy barbecue sauce. The smoked sausage Archer serves is from Slovacek’s, but he said he’d like to make his own eventually. There just isn’t room in his kitchen for sausage making.

Archer’s brisket profitability has increased, though, thanks to a switch in brisket suppliers. He was using IBP briskets, but noticed they were coming in with lots of extra fat, and were sloppily trimmed. He weighed his whole briskets after smoking, and they had lost 60 percent of their pre-trimmed weight. “They’re leaving a lot more stuff on them than I’m used to seeing,” Archer said. He switched to Prime-grade briskets from Swift. The loss is now 42 percent from raw to smoked, which is better than the industry average of around 50 percent. Either way, that’s some expensive trim to discard, but Archer doesn’t have enough room for a flattop to cook burgers.

Archer could make room for a flattop or a deep fryer if he took out the espresso machine, but he likes how the craft aspect of coffee melds with the barbecue and the eight Texas beers he keeps on tap. The coffee beans are a blend called Liberty Chill roasted by Texas Coffee Traders in Austin. I didn’t try the beer, but I did finish my meal with a Honey Bee latte sweetened with honey and brown sugar. It went well with the peach cobbler cheesecake, which combined creaminess with the spices you’d get in a good homemade cobbler. There are several other varieties of cheesecake cups in the cooler, like pecan and pumpkin.

The folks at Agape BBQ are doing their best to keep their customers warm during these cold months with chili, coffee, and good barbecue, but they’re looking forward to the warm weather. Their only smoker sits next to the building in a screened trailer (a second, larger smoker will come soon). They also have an enormous backyard with picnic tables and a stage for live music. The next live act is scheduled in March, but there’s no need to wait that long to get out to Liberty Hill for some barbecue made and served with love.

Agape BBQ

3610 Ranch Road 1869, Liberty Hill
Phone: 512-548-6230
Hours: Tuesday–Thursday 11–8, Friday–Saturday 11–9
Pitmaster: Jeremy Archer
Method: Oak in an offset smoker
Year opened: 2020