The design of PK’s grills is basically unchanged since the originals were made in 1952 by one Hilton Meigs. The idea was, and remains, simple — the grill capsule’s shape, use of cast aluminum and four-point vent system makes for a tougher-than-shit charcoal grill that’s easy to use and almost impossible to damage or corrode.
The original grill gained popularity among home and professional smokers, even attracting attention from the U.S. Army, who apparently ordered more than 20,000 back in the ’50s. The company, then called Portable Kitchen (hence, PK), went virtually defunct in the ’70s thanks to the surge of propane gas grills at the time. About a decade ago, an Arkansas native bought up the IP and started making them again, launching the first new-retro grill in 2016. The PKTX, which uses the same grill capsule as the original but adds a folding body for easy transport, is its newest product.
It’s a very premium stab at the compact, portable grill market — an area that could use more non-chintzy, non-gimmicky products. The PKTX shuns both chintz and gimmick, but is it worth the $400 price tag? I tested one to find out.
The Good: To my mind its greatest selling point is low-maintenance combined with a lot of cooking potential. Its aluminum body makes it virtually rust-proof and far lighter weight than you’d expect; it folds down pretty easily and there’s just not a whole lot of tiny parts that can break or wear away.
PK’s four-point vent system is simple to understand and use. It’s also effectively mobile, but remains still more of a tailgate or pre-prepped campsite option rather than a proper portable grill. Its compact size makes for a pretty stellar grill to accompany a tiny backyard as well. Most high-heat cooking endeavors are as simple as any quality charcoal grill — the aluminum body maintains temperatures to a much better degree than its steel counterparts.
Who They’re For: The aspirational charcoal grillmaster to the soot-covered charcoal veteran, it’s a pretty slick option for any who are in the market for a smoker + grill combo they can take on the road with them. It’s big enough to smoke one, maybe two large cuts of meat, but much better suited for a few chickens, ribs (cut in half prior to smoking) or a bunch of sausages.
Naturally, the PKTX excels at high heat grilling, so burgers, steaks and pork chops are all perfectly doable. If you want a rock solid charcoal grill, don’t plan on having huge backyard barbeques and need something you can move easily, this is your grill.
Watch Out For: Its grill space is pretty small — only 301 square inches. That’s about 15 burgers of total grill space (and you’re only counting half the space for smoking). I wish there was a way to raise and lower the grates, as some meats you want right above the flame during grilling, while others you need the opposite.
Additionally, the grill chamber is comprised of two pieces, which is neat, but the lid and base of the grill are not attached in any formal way. Rather, the lid rests on hinges while cooking, but isn’t screwed or bolted to the base. I didn’t have any issues of grill lids falling off during testing, but it did feel suspect.
Alternatives: These are the boxes you need to check if you’re into this grill but aren’t sure if this is the one you want: charcoal, mobility, grill and smoke capabilities, proper heat control, durability. I’d argue there isn’t another grill that’s around $400 that matches all these boxes as well as the PKTX. But, you could compromise and get the tried and true Weber 22-inch kettle ($149) — a multifunctional, lightweight, adaptable grill with some room to grow (like a cast-iron grate).
Weber’s grill isn’t nearly as durable, though, it has less grill space and is a bit trickier to master heat control with. There are probably 20 brands who make something like Char-Griller’s very popular charcoal grill ($195+), and for good reason — these grills are cheap and work pretty well. Once again, though, you lose durability by going chintzy stainless instead of cast aluminum. These grills are pretty much never as mobile or compact as the PKTX, either.
Review: I received the grill in one surprisingly small and lightweight box. For a grill that comes completely disassembled, it assembles far more quickly than expected — 15 to 30 minutes at most. The first thing I noticed when putting it together was the lack of a bolt or screw to secure the grill’s lid to its base. It opts instead for a sort of self-support hinge, which makes it feel sort of incomplete (though, again, no incidents occurred as a result) but does permit it to be taken apart rather quickly if needed. The grill’s scissor stand folds into what’s basically a light hand truck, and both the base and the grill capsule have hook spots for bungee cords to secure it when on the road. On the whole, it’s compact when grilling and folds down into about half the space in travel mode.
Vents on a grill are your primary method of heat control once the cooking process has begun — close vents for less oxygen and lower heat, open them out to turn up the heat. All PK grill capsules use four vents — one on either side of the lid and base — which make smoking and heat control about as easy as it gets without a proper smoker. Essentially, you’re placing your fuel (charcoal, lump coal or something more interesting) under one side of the grates, a tray of water under the other side and your food over the tray of water. Once the fire is good and going, open the grate closest to the coals and above the meat; this allows the heat and smoke from the fuel to travel up and through the food and out of the top grate. It’s simple and effective, and the ribs I smoked came out tender and smokey.
As mentioned previously, this system cuts the already small grill space in half (down to 150 square inches), keeping enough space for one pork shoulder, two smallish butts, a couple racks of ribs (cut in half) or about three chickens.
Its durability is pretty much unchallenged in the grill market. The cast aluminum grill capsule was a stroke of genius in the ’50s when it was introduced, and it continues to be so — its naturally even heating abilities reduce hot spots, and rain could literally not matter less to it. Read through grilling forums and you’ll find folks whose PK grill is older than them.
Aluminum is much lighter than iron, so weight isn’t really an issue — I was able to pick up and move the entirety of the grill without much trouble, though you shouldn’t have the need to pick it up all too often. The rubber wheels suring up the base are a ray of sunshine in a world of shitty plastic wheels. They roll smoothly and they aren’t going to shatter because you wheeled the grill over a curb.
Verdict: As outlined before, this is the ideal charcoal grill and smoker for anyone who prizes durability, versatility and mobility. It’s easy to assemble and disassemble; moisture and rain does absolutely nothing to it; and its minimal heat control system is effective and easy to manage. Grill space could be an issue, but expected for a grill this size. While I do think a system to raise and lower the grate would greatly improve the grilling experience, it operates as any charcoal grill operates: it gets blazing hot and chars meats and veggies gorgeously.
Weight: 45 pounds
Grill Space: 301 square-inches
Total Length: 48 inches
Grill Body: Aluminum
Wheels: 5-inch rubber