Tailgating and BBQ fit together hand in glove. The open air camaraderie of friends and strangers gathered together to imbibe food and drink is a joy anywhere, any season. Tailgating is no longer confined to a parking lot or just football. Outdoor celebrations have expanded to apartment complexes and condos, beaches, parks, and even dog shows. Sports enthusiasts who don't have tickets to the big game are homegating and cheering their teams on from the backyard with TVs and loudspeakers out on their decks.
As our friend Randy Dye of Tailgater Monthly observes, "In the past decade technology has advanced to the point that people can have a wonderful tailgate experience anywhere and anytime. Portable power, flat screen TVs, portable satellite hook ups." So to help you party like a pro, we offer the Top 10 Best Value Tailgater Grills.
In making our selections from our list of 59 portable grills we've reviewed, we looked for quality, performance, and mobility. Many models feature fold up stands, snap down lids and trailer hitches. Knowing most of our readers would consider tailgaters a second grill, price was also a big factor. The majority of our selections are under $500 with some less than $100. Grills like the $30 Smokey Joe limit the cook to small, simple fare such as burgers and dogs, but the Broil King Keg is an excellent, full-size kamado cooker that is great on the road or on your deck.
This year we added the Can Cooker, a big aluminum can with an insulated snap on lid. Fill it with meats, veggies and spices, then set it on a fire, or any heat source, to steam cook. Or you can make chili ahead of time and heat it up in the can at your destination. The popular Orion Cooker makes our Tailgating list for the first time. This lightweight, high capacity device is a hi-tech variation on the cowboy method of cooking in a Dutch oven where the pot sits on coals and coals sit on top of the pot. Great for chicken, turkey fish and big hunks of meat and tall enough to hang full slabs of ribs inside the cook chamber.
If you are planning a tailgater, check out out checklist of things you need to bring. For other things to look for when you are shopping for a grill, check out How To Buy a Grill, a good starting point that will lead you to specifics about gas and charcoal grills, kamados, smokers and more. And regardless of what choice you make, the dial thermometers attached to the hoods are poor quality and barely qualify to be called temperature indicators. It is not unusual for them to be off by 50 to 100°F, and they are located in the dome, not at the cooking level, not very useful unless you plan to eat the lid. We strongly recommend that your budget include a good digital thermometer with a probe that can be placed on the cooking grate. To help find the right one for you, AmazingRibs.com has a searchable thermometer database with ratings and reviews of more than 130.
How we review and rate grills and smokers
I am the only person in the world whose full time job is testing, researching, reviewing, and rating grills and smokers. Not a bad gig! I measure temperatures, slam lids, turn dials, study warranties, kick casters, and cook a lot of food, and consider look, feel, and price. I try to select devices that cover a range of prices, endeavoring to offer you a winner at whatever you can afford. We think these selections are Best Values in their price category. The thumbnail reviews in our Top 10 Lists are in order of manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP), but actual prices can differ significantly, especially since many of these items can be highly customized. Please click the red links to read our complete detailed reviews and find links to suppliers, many of whom sell well below MSRP. In addition to our Top 10 Lists, we have a huge searchable Ratings & Reviews database with hundreds of smokers and grills.
It is a disappointment that so many manufacturers continue to include cheap bimetal dial heat indicators (we can't bring ourselves to call them thermometers). They are usually in the lid, far from where the cooking actually takes place and are frequently off by more than 50°F! Good cooking is all about temperature control. Without accurate thermometers you're asking for wasted money, overdone embarrassment, and food borne illness from underdone food. Please budget for a good digital oven thermometer and a separate rapid read digital food thermometer. For more info, we also have a database of reviews for more than 100 thermometers.
Weber Smokey Joe Portable Charcoal Grills $35 to $45 - 3rd Year On Our List!
Even college students and starving artists should resist buying those $9.99 charcoal grills on display at grocery stores and scrounge the extra dough to get a Smokey Joe. Some of those cut rate junkers are nothing more than a large pan with a grate: No lid, no vents, no good for anything but burning hamburgers. Smokey Joe is nothing less than a mini version of one of the greatest inventions in history: the Weber Kettle.
Often imitated, but never duplicated, Weber Kettles have excellent air and heat control because of tight, precise construction. Furthermore, the high quality enamel coating will preserve this grill for decades.
Weber offers Smokey Joe in Silver and Gold models. The Gold model, shown above, has a convenient "Tuck and Carry Lid Holder" that snaps the lid shut for fast, easy mobility. Both have a 14.5" diameter coated steel rod grate that holds about 7 burgers. Both weigh only 9.5 pounds. And both, despite the names, are black. There is also a larger, Jumbo Joe model for $70. Click here to read our complete review of the Weber Smokey Joe Portable Charcoal Grills.
Can Cooker Original $90 - New To Our List!
This upgraded riff on the old practice of slow cooking meat and veggies in a cream can over an open fire employs a high-temperature silicone gasket around the lid which seals tight with clamps while excess steam is released via a small hole in the lid. It can be used on any heat source both in or outdoors: kitchen stoves, camp stoves, grills, turkey fryers, camp fires and CanCooker's Muilti-Fuel Portable Cooktop. Simple, easy to understand, effective, and affordable, CanCooker is gaining popularity among hunters, tailgaters and other outdoor enthusiasts. Click here to read our complete review of the Can Cooker Original.
Cook-Air Wood Burning Grill $149 - 3rd Year On Our List!
Cook-Air packs a mighty wallop for the diminutive 12" height. In fact it's one of the best portable searing machines we've seen, blasting past small gas burners maximum range with the greatest of ease, reaching temps up to 700°F in less than 5 minutes. It burns hockey puck size wood pellets or any small hardwood, nutwood, or fruitwood chunks in a firepot at the bottom while a small internal, five speed fan forces hot air upward to sizzle your goodies on the grate. Although you can cook a variety of foods on Cook-Air using the five fan settings to achieve low to high temps, it excels at searing thin steaks like flank and skirt, producing a perfect brown crust on the meat surface while maintaining a pink juicy interior. DON'T walk away from this Tasmanian Heat Devil because it cooks real hot, real fast. DO check internal meat temp early and often with a reliable instant read digital thermometer or you may end up with a few extra hockey pucks. The wood delivers a special unique flavor best suited for red meats, but we are not thrilled with the way it cooks white meats, hence the silver medal. But if you cook steaks, fajitas, and burgers, this may be the best tool on the shelf. It can run on an electric outlet, batteries, or the 12 volt cigarette lighter adapter included. Click here to read our complete review of the Cook-Air Wood Burning Grill.
Char-Broil Grill2Go X200 $150 - 3rd Year On Our List!
This fun little sizzler is made of heavy cast aluminum that retains heat and won't rust. The lid snaps shut with two front locks, holding the stainless steel grate in place so it doesn't flop around while being carried by the handle like a brief case.
The X200 uses Char-Broil's trademark TRU-Infrared design. The grate is a solid steel sheet with a single gas burner underneath. When cranked on High the grate absorbs heat from the burner to produce searing infrared temps. Without an open flame there are no flare-ups making X200 easy to use and very forgiving for those who become abandoned to the gods of tailgating.
It can also be dialed back for foods like chicken and sausage that require moderate temperature. An added benefit of TRU-Infrared is the low fuel consumption which is a big plus for this portable that runs on a 16.4 ounce propane cylinder. Click here to read our complete review of the Char-Broil Grill2Go X200.
Orion Cooker $170 - New To Our List!
This lightweight stainless steel cooker is based on the cowboy cooking method where a dutch oven is placed directly on a fire and topped off with hot embers. It comes with lots of useful extras like a poultry rack, rib hangers and cooking grates. The cylindrical cook chamber is tall and spacious. Orion claims you can cook a 24 lb. turkey on the poultry rack or hang six slabs of ribs. It's not a traditional smoker. All the charcoal goes on the outside and food is sealed on the inside, but you can burn wood chips inside the sealed cook chamber for a whiff of smoke. Easy to use and known to cook foods fast. Click here to read our complete review of the Orion Cooker.
Blackstone 36" Griddle Cooking System $300 - 2nd Year On Our List!
The Blackstone 36" Griddle Cooking Station is an interesting, low cost, large capacity, portable cook top. Four 15,000 BTU burners generate enough sizzle to do some serious cooking. The 36" x 21" removable, cold rolled steel griddle has a lip around the sides and back to keep your goodies from falling off. Electric ignition makes for convenient start up. Large work shelves are located left and right, and a small grease cup hangs under the front right corner of the griddle where a small channel facilitates cleaning the cook surface. Remove the bottom storage shelf and the legs fold up for easy transport and serious tailgating! Click here to read our complete review of the Blackstone 36" Griddle Cooking System.
Green Mountain Davy Crocket Pellet Smoker $399 - 4th Year On Our List!
We believe Green Mountain's Davy Crocket is the best portable pellet smoker currently on the market. Surprisingly, most of the portables out there still have an antiquated Lo-Med-Hi controller while Davy Crocket employs Green Mountain's advanced digital touch pad controller with an integrated meat thermometer that lets you check internal meat temp with the flick of a switch. Furthermore adapters to run the electronics from your car battery or cigarette lighter are included. And Green Mountain is aggressively (read: price cut) promoting their WiFi capabilities which enable you to monitor Davy Crocket from your smart phone or laptop.
Pellet Smokers are the best thing that ever happened to backyard chefs struggling to create traditional smoked BBQ delicacies like ribs, pulled pork, and brisket. They are not great at hot and fast grilling, however. See that digital display with green buttons on the picture above? That's where you set the temperature just like on your kitchen oven. Click here to learn more about how they work. Click here to read our complete review of the Green Mountain Davy Crockett Pellet Smoker.
Napoleon TravelQ 285X Portable Gas Grill with Cart $399 - 4th Year On Our List!
Napoleon knocked this one out of the ballpark! TQ 285X is a large portable gasser with ample grill space, and the two burners with independent electronic ignition allow 2-zone cooking on a hot direct side and cooler indirect side. Snap the lid shut and it holds all internal parts firmly in place so they don't bang around while you pull the cart across rough surfaces.
The cart is by far the best we've seen in this popular collapsible design. Rock solid upright or flattened for transport this clever well-made device adapts to either position effortlessly in seconds. Click here to read our complete review of the Napoleon TravelQ 285X Portable Gas Grill with Cart.
Meadow Creek BBQ26 Charcoal Grill $435 - 4th Year On Our List!
Meadow Creek is well known in the competitive BBQ world where many teams use their big offset smokers to bring home the gold. Made by Amish craftsmen in Pennsylvania for decades, these heavy metal cookers are known for superior performance and are built to last. With a 16" x 24" double grate, this 60 pound grill is the smallest model in Meadow Creek's catalog.
The BBQ26 has no lid and is meant for fast hot cooking, which it does beautifully. The double grate is two grates hinged together on one side. Lift the top grate, load the bottom and clamp it shut. This enables you to flip the entire contents at once. Meadow Creek claims it holds up to 15 chickens.
Of course steaks, chops, burgers and sausage are perfect for the BBQ26 whether you clamp down a bunch or flip a few on top with tongs. Great for larger gatherings and an optional trailer hitch saves yer achin' back from schlepping or bending over to tend it. Click here to read our complete review of the Meadow Creek BBQ26 Charcoal Grill.
Broil King Keg 5000 $899 - 4th Year On Our List!
Kamado style cookers continue to gain popularity in the backyard, but not so much when it comes to tailgating. Here's one with an optional trailer hitch! All kamados, including the Broil King Keg, are great at smoking, roasting, baking and searing thin meats and the thick walls make them impervious to cold, but many are made of ceramic which is very heavy and can crack if dropped or knocked over. Not the BKK. It is made with modern, lightweight fiberglass encased in powder coated steel: Not light enough to pick up and carry around but easy to lift off the base and pop onto the trailer hitch. And if it does get dropped it won't crack like Humpty Dumpty.
Other companies charge extra for just about everything but the logo. Broil King put together a nice package that includes a sturdy stand with big wheels and removable side tables, a multi-function tool for handling the grate and removing ash, and a secondary extender rack that hovers above the primary grate to provide extra cook surface. The side tables have handy tool hooks and there's even a couple bottle openers built into the handle. Click here to read our complete review of the Broil King Keg 5000.