Memorial Day Weekend is the unofficial start of backyard cooking season, and for many of us that means entertaining. Entertaining in turn, means a chance to show off, and face it, everyone wants to impress their guests. One way to do that is with the food. Another is with the hardware itself, giving your neighborhood a bad case of grill envy.
I write regularly on the topic of grills and smokers here at Forbes and elsewhere, but today I am focusing on some statement models, those that will widen the eyes of innocent onlookers while performing at a very high level for you, both at parties and for everyday use. A couple of my long-time favorites in their categories have all new models out this year and have gotten better than ever, while there are some standbys you just can’t pass up.
Let’s start with a visual stunner that is as good for blowing minds as it for using every day.
Quadra by ibbq: This innovative company, ibbq, basically invented the new category of “table grills,” which are just what they sound like, tables with built-in grills. Think of a more refined patio take on going out to eat at a cook-it-yourself Korean barbecue restaurant. I love their original model, the Angara, a rectangular table with benches down either side, like a very fancy picnic table. Depending on the version, it contains either two (Angara) or three (Angara Maximus) independent linear 15,000 BTU gas (LP or natural) grills running down the center. Whether one chef is cooking it all or you do something like burgers or skewers where everyone can cook their own, it gets the whole table in on the action close up and personal, letting you just reach out in front of you while seated and comfortably cook in the middle while conversation goes on uninterrupted. Each grill is separate and adjustable, which allows for 2-3 zones at different temperatures. It’s both a brilliant concept and a showstopper, made of insect and weather resistant (and gorgeous) tigerwood (or for the Maximus, fancy Burmese Teak) with a powder-coated steel frame. Everything, from the table itself to the grills, is very heavy duty, and the latter is easily disassembled for quick clean up – the heavy-duty stainless-steel grates even go in the dishwasher. There is even a matching wooden gas tank enclosure that sits at one end of the table, keeping everything neat and doubling a staging serving area.
The Angara is so revolutionary that some tropical resorts have added them commercially as a restaurant feature, an upcoming San Diego-area restaurant is planned around them, and British Vogue recently photographed superstar Angelina Jolie with her kids eating at her Maximus at her California home. Depending on the size (up to an eight-seater) and configuration, the Angara/Angara Maximus runs $6,499-$18,999.
There is very little not to like about the Angara, except that it is big, heavy and on the pricey side. If you have the room and budget, it is a backyard showstopper, perfect for a pool patio. But this year ibbq made its table grill concept accessible to many more backyards with the Quadra, a smaller, square table with one larger square grill in the middle. It still seats eight comfortably or four luxuriously, one to two per side (over four feet), on optional matching benches or your own patio chairs. The grill has two independent burner zones and the tank conceals in the pedestal base, giving you an awesome grill table in a small footprint. The stainless-steel grill cover instantly converts it into an outdoor patio table for everyday use – it’s perfect for poker after dinner. It’s light enough and preassembled enough so that you can easily assemble it yourself – it took me longer to take off all the protective packaging than to actually put together, far easier than the typical big box store gas grill. The table surface is maintenance-free synthetic wood that cleans up easily. It’s as simple to use as any gas grill, meaning you can fire it up for as little as hot dogs for two or after dinner s’mores even when you’re not cooking outside. This is a brand-new product that makes an entirely new kind of outdoor living possible, that you can use every day, that will raise impressed eyebrows, and at $4,499 it’s competitive with high-end gas grills that you cannot sit at or eat on.
Memphis Grills Pellet Smokers: Pellet smokers/grills have been the hottest category in outdoor cooking ever since the “low and slow” authentic Southern smoked barbecue craze took off nationwide years ago, because these smart, easy to use devices let anyone turn out competition-worthy ribs, brisket, pulled pork and a whole lot more with the least imaginable fuss, muss and oversight. Thanks to the “set and forget” technology, I’ve put in ribs and gone off to play 18-holes of golf or go for a long bike ride only to return to mouthwatering dinner. But that’s only half the story – unlike most other kinds of smokers, pellet grills can theoretically do it all, grilling, searing, roasting and even baking, and there’s a good argument to be made that if you can have only one outdoor cooking device, it should be a pellet grill. But the category’s success and popularity has led to commoditization and dumbing down, and there are many cheap, inferior pellet grills on the market today. Lower quality manifests itself in many ways, including construction, durability and convenience features, but mostly in less precise electronics, the all-important thermostat that is needed to keep a constant steady low and slow temp, and in the grilling features such as searing – many lower-end grills just can’t get hot enough.
I’ve had several good pellet grills, but for years my go-to favorite has been a Memphis Grills Pro Elite, a sleek, commercial quality, championship ready model that was the first on the market to develop a two-hopper design that lets you custom blend different flavor wood pellets at once. It was also the first model to add a removable/interchangeable burner cover feature so you can actually cook over an open flame, like on a charcoal or gas grill, at higher than typical temps. Many pellet smokers get hot enough to grill, but not over a flame. I’ve been smoking on my Memphis Pro for many seasons, it sits outside in frigid snowy northern winters (with a basic grill cover), and it still looks brand new, thanks to the high quality and very heavy-duty design.
But this year the company upped the ante with their new ITC (Intelligent Temperature Control) lineup, which add a lot of things. It already had very precise digital thermometer, but now boasts a touchscreen panel with more options, connected to the new Intelliburn technology. This is basically the smartest smoker out there, generating more heat from less fuel with a proprietary secondary combustion system. You use fewer pellets, and when cooking above smoke mode (grilling, etc.) you also get a cleaner cook. This is the biggest upgrade, but the new generation ITC3 grills also add a combustion blower system that improves temperature consistency during those long cooks. The Memphis Grills smokers can run from 180° (you’ll never want less) to 700°, which thanks to the unique open fire configuration, is far more than many pellet grills can obtain, and higher than even some gas grills should safely be operated, offering pro steakhouse sear. Many new grills have connected meat probes, but this one helps actually control the ITC brains, and the result is not only perfect smoking, but automatic adjustments that simulate the flexibility of a 2-zone grill without the oversight when cooking other meats. When you reach your desired cook, the grill will even turn itself down and keep your food warm until you are ready to eat.
The standalone models look a lot like my previous one, but having just assembled a new one, I can vouch that it adds some other powerful conveniences, like sliding (outwards) side tables that reveal a ton of extra, watertight storage underneath that you can access without bending down, as well as the same large two shelf storage in the cart below. A new grill layout lets you add an optional 500-plus square inches of second level smoking space (or a place to move stuff off the flame when grilling), and in a very small footprint you now have a lot of storage and the capacity to make five (at least) big racks of ribs at once. Even the wheels are improved, with very heavy-duty locking casters, and the entire thing is rock-solid construction of high-gauge, high-quality stainless steel that puts big box models to shame. It’s still got the cool two-hopper pellet design, and if there is a bell and whistle in the smoker world, from Bluetooth to smartphone apps, these have it. I’ve tried a lot of pellet grills, and not only does the Memphis lineup smoke as well – or better – than any of them, it is also better built and does things others cannot do or does them better. The new ITC lineup is available in two built-in models for outdoor kitchens ($5,299-$6,899) and two freestanding cart models, with side tables and underneath storage ($5649-$7,399). If you are serios about your barbecue, this is a serious tool.
Schwank Grills “Blazing Bull”: This is about as specialized as backyard cooking gets, aimed squarely at the red meat lover who has a fondness for world-class steakhouses and things like thick-cut porterhouse or bone-in “cowboy” rib steaks. Many of the nation’s most famous steakhouses, including Morton’s, Del Frisco’s, the Palm, Ditka’s and many others cook steaks using the same method, a method that you could not easily do at home – until now. They all use custom built ultra-high temp overhead broilers to quickly sear steaks at heat you cannot get in your home oven or even the best cast iron pan. Another thing these venerable brands have in common is that they all use kitchen technology (built into Southbend Commercial Broilers, a commercial kitchen top pick) from Schwank, founded in 1938 as a leading manufacturer of extra efficient heaters for industrial and patio applications, with customers including the US Air Force, BMW and Amazon. In 1978 owner Bernd Shank experimented cooking steaks with new infrared technology and was so impressed that he engineered and constructed his first overhead infrared grill – which was adapted by legendary steak palaces like Peter Luger in Brooklyn and Gibson’s in Chicago.
In 2020 Bernd’s son put his own spin on the technology by bringing it to the backyards of this nation via the Blazing Bull, since renamed the Schwank Grill (though it still sports the bull horns logo). Attached to a normal propane tank, this device – the size of a large microwave oven, and quite portable – reaches 1500° in less than 3 minutes of warm up. It has an open front, a rack that is height adjustable (7 levels) by a lever on the side, and that’s about it. You season your steaks, put them in, sear, then lower the rack until the internal temp you want is reached. As a bonus, all the juices that come out are collected in a lower pan and can be used to enhance the flavor of the meat, and you can add butter or additional spices. You get true steakhouse quality cooking in a fraction of the time and with better sear than other methods, especially for thick cuts, and the mix of juiciness and crustiness will wow your guests. The other kind of cooking that requires these kinds of extreme heats to do right is Neapolitan style pizza, so of course, an optional stone lets you make pizza in it. But basically, anything that benefits from a very fast external sear or caramelization can go into the Schwank, from pineapple slices to salmon to lamb chops to asparagus. The Schwank 1500 Degree Portable Infrared Grill is $1250.
Weber Ranch Kettle: This oversize model is not new, but remains relatively unknown, which is especially surprising given that it is part of the world’s best-known lineup of backyard grills. The ubiquitous Weber Kettle, a roundish charcoal grill, has long been a patio staple and for many Americans was their first grill, and for many remains the only choice. The kettle boasts time-proven simplicity and flexibility, and with some effort and know how you can do everything from basic burgers and dogs to indirect cooks and even long slow BBQ smoking. Some backyard grill enthusiast swear by real fire and eschew gas, and while I do not, I understand the sentiment, so if you want a rock solid, do-it-all grill to burn charcoal (preferably natural hardwood and no gas-impregnated briquettes), the Kettle is a great option, and an incredible value at just $119-$139 (two sizes). There is also a just-released limited edition 70th Anniversary Collection, which features retro touches including a storge tray between the legs, which was on the original but later discontinued, a built-in thermometer designed to look like a Fifties hood ornament, white wall “tires,” and synthetic wood handle evoking the original, in four unique throwback colors ($439).
If you want to stick to the basics and tradition while still throwing big parties and impressing the neighbors, it is time to supersize your fire, and that means than the Ranch Kettle. The original Kettle is either 18 or 22 inches in diameter, while the Ranch blows that away at a ginormous 37” meaning the surface area equals nearly what you would get if you cooked on three of the largest regular Kettles the same time. It’s so big that the grate includes a hinged section to lift easily to add more fuel, and the giant dome cover securely sits upright in a special rack when you want it open. As a bonus, this is an excellent setup for making the least known major regional style of American barbecue, Santa Maria BBQ, popular in central California, which involves a longer indirect cook uncovered.
If you can’t handle your backyard cookout on the Ranch, you may have invited too many people, but whether it’s just your family, a couple of friends or a big crowd, the sheer grith of this model will draw admiring stares ($1,849).