JATAC gets an outdoor kitchen

by Roseann Hanson (co-director, Overland Expo)

There's a lot I love about having a stove, sink, and fridge inside a truck camper—all-weather cooking, protection from mosquitoes, and the convenience of a full kitchen (see this article, about our "Just a Tacoma and Camper" setup). But I miss cooking outside. It's more social, and enjoying the views is why we explore and camp. Nothing like sipping a cool drink, tending some thick pork chops, and gazing out over the Grand Canyon while a condor soars overhead . . .

To facilitate outdoor cooking, we sorted out a camp table and awning. Jonathan rigged us a sleek and easy mount for the sturdy stainless steel table from Frontrunner Outfitters (see story here). And although it was initially a tough decision ($800), we invested in a high-quality, quick-deploying Fiamma awning for the starboard side. Importantly, this is also the side for access to the Four Wheel Camper's dual 10-pound propane tanks, since I settled on a propane grill, for convenience and when local fire restrictions or wood availability obviates our Snow Peak portable fireplace grill. My idea was to leave one tank hooked up to the inside stove and hot water heater, and the second tank rigged with a portable grill hose so all we had to do was hook it up and start cooking.

Now all I needed was a portable propane grill that was powerful, not too bulky, high-quality, and functional.

Easier said than done. I looked at many name brands, including Coleman, Char-Broil, Weber, and NexGrill (a sister brand of Jenn-Air). Some had great BTU ratings (the NexGrill boasts 20,000 and has 2 burners with separate controls). Some were clever (the Coleman Road Trip has an integrated stand that scissors down, so you don't need to use up valuable table space). Some were cheap (the Char-Broil at $30 via Amazon—with the savings you could buy a lot of top sirloin . . .). Some were compact (the Fuego Element closes like a sleek clamshell and is just 9x12).

But in the end my eye was caught by the Napoleon PTSS165P portable grill ($189 MSRP), built for the demanding marine environment (you can order very pricey sailboat cockpit mounts for it). Runner up was the NexGrill (model 820-0015, $180 at Home Depot) but reviews on Amazon indicated the finish quality was poor, with some users claiming not all parts are stainless, or were flimsy with sharp edges. The quality of the Napoleon looked so good, I decided to take a gamble on its 9,000 BTUs (compared to twice that for the NexGrill) and single burner control.

The finish quality of the Napoleon is beyond reproach: folded and riveted corners, smoothly finished vent holes, and sturdy (not at all "tinny") 304 stainless throughout.

Details like the high-quality latch and rivets won me over.

The four-inch legs are anchored with stainless bolts, and pivot flush to the bottom for storage. Only complaint: they do scratch the tabletop, so we're going to coat the bases in Plasti-Dip.

The handle stays cool even after long periods of cooking. However, it's on the wrong side for a right-handed person (when grilling, you usually hold a utensil in your right hand and would use your left to open the grill to check cooking progress). The pietzo-igniter stopped working after the first night. The propane regulator is also on this side. The Napoleon only comes with a mount for small 1-pound canisters; we had to buy a 5-foot hose to connect it to our 10-pound tank.

Cooking area is 17.25 x 9.25 and just about perfect for two people. For more food than that, cooking in shifts would be recommended. To get searing temperatures, the instructions recommend lighting the grill and pre-heating for 10 minutes. This did produce temperatueres just right for searing the pork chops. I do wish it had two burners so I could turn one off to create a cooler location for finishing things like vegetables.

The slightly domed lid is vented but very windproof (we cooked two dinners in 10-15 MPH gusts), and its height would allow cooking a small whole chicken or something in a deep-dish pan; you could even bake a cake or low-top bread. There is a slide-out grease trap tray on the bottom, which made clean-up super easy.

The carrying case fits well but its quality is not commensurate to the grill: the fabric is thin Cordura and is poorly sewn (on ours, the inside pocket for the gas regulator pulled out at the bottom), so I'm not expecting it to last as long as the high-quality grill.

We've now used the Napoleon half a dozen times on a 2,800 mile trip, and are overall extremely pleased with the quality. It's also transformed our camping by doubling our "living area" to include a spacious, convenient, shaded outdoor kitchen where we can easily grill salmon steaks, cook lasagna, bake a cake, or turn out bacon and pancakes on a griddle for a small group.


(Awning: Fiamma.com; table: FrontrunnerOutfitters.com or a similar version from K9 racks and Equipt Expedition Outfitters, available in three sizes)