Arguably, DTLA could be suffering from a case of taco fatigue.
From Guisados to Guerrilla, there is no lack of exceptionally fine taquerias, many boasting a combination of regional authenticity and modernist innovation and flair. The profusion of Downtown options that naturally extends into East Los Angeles has even given rise to a class of taco snobs, who flout their knowledge of provincial ingredients, recipes and tortilla provenance.
Just when jaded Downtown taco enthusiasts think they’ve seen it all comes the arrival of Sky’s Gourmet Tacos. These are not your neighborhood abuela’s tacos any more than they are the product of a gastronomic inventor with a culinary degree.
The newest entrant to the ongoing Downtown taco renaissance has been successfully operating in Los Angeles since 1992. It also happens to be owned by a Black woman with two grandchildren. These tacos are quite uniquely tasty and deserve to be acknowledged as an indigenous Los Angeles invention.
That said, Barbara “Sky” Burrell’s taco odyssey begins in the unlikely locale of Waukegan, Illinois, north of Chicago, where she was born and raised.
“It was an industrial city,” she said.
“So, there was a (business) strip called ‘The Strip,’ and you would just ride through. There was a sign up there on The Strip that just said “taco.” It looked like something I had never eaten before. I said, ‘What’s a taco?’ Frankly I can’t tell you what it had in it but, there was something about it I liked. (I said,) ‘This is now going to be mine.’”
As a teen, she began making them at home for her family.
“I can’t say they were in love with it.”
A career in marketing and facility management brought her to Southern California in the mid-1970s. At that time, as she says, “Tacos were still unqualified here. The general populace did not eat tacos in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Tacos have always been (what I call) the ‘unqualified’ food. They had not put the love around and the realness around this particular food item.”
That was about to change.
The original Pico Boulevard location of Sky’s Gourmet Tacos opened March 5, 1992, less than two months before violent civil unrest erupted across the city in the wake of the Rodney King verdict. The riots served as an unsettling backdrop to personal tragedy, when her fiancé died suddenly of a heart attack.
She was fortunate that her college-aged sons, Victor and Jerry, stepped up to supervise and manage the daily operations of the nascent taqueria, as she struggled with personal loss.
“The challenges started right after I opened,” she recalled. “I was able to get through because I had wonderful children, two sons who were able to carry on. So, I was very blessed.”
The challenges continued when her younger son, Jerry, was killed in a motorcycle crash in March 2001. Her elder son, Victor, helps sustain the business and now serves as president. In August 2016, Sky’s Marketplace opened in the Marina City Club in Marina Del Rey, offering the full dine-in menu of the original location as well as a small, well-stocked market for the building’s residents as well as for the boat dwellers of the marina.
The marketplace also allowed a venue to feature Burrell’s own line of sauces and seasoning—including her signature “Sassy Sauce”—and her artisanal cheesecakes, another unique feature of the original menu.
Billed as “Mexican with a Splash of Soul,” Sky’s tacos are Tex-Mex style, insofar as lettuce, tomato and shredded Jack cheese figure into most compositions here. The term “Flex-Mex” might serve as a better denotation and description for these tacos.
Presented on doubled 6-inch tortillas, which have been griddled to a light crisp, they are neither “hard” dorados nor “soft” street style. Though there is an authentic taco ($2) that features carne asada dressed with the traditional topping of chopped white onion and cilantro, unique tacos are the key.
When ordering online, there are add-ons like rice, beans and cotija cheese available for a nominal charge. There is a potato and cheese option ($2), a turkey taco that replaces ground beef with ground turkey ($2) and a shiitake mushroom taco ($3.99) with green salsa.
Shrimp tacos ($4.75) feature tortillas seasoned with Old Bay and Creole spices, and the tilapia taco ($3.75) replaces cabbage and crema with cole slaw topping a very lightly breaded and fried filet. Crawfish ($8.99) and lobster ($10.99) tacos are also available for a more exotic splurge.
Tacos are the focus, but a selection of burritos, tortas, quesadillas and nachos are always available. Given the size and quality of the tortillas and the freshness of the ingredients, the portions are generous for the price. More to the point, these tacos represent a personal style that has evolved mindfully over nearly three decades. You can taste it and only here.
The new restaurant, which opened on August 15, is located near the USC campus and operates out of a ghost or cloud kitchen for curbside pickup or delivery only. Downtown locations are fully serviced within the delivery perimeter, which is handled by Postmates.
“It’s a different challenge,” Burrell said. “It’s about springing into action. We made the decision on the cloud kitchen about 18 months ago. (But) we’re still waiting for USC to open back up. We’re hanging in there. We made the decision to go ahead regardless of the pandemic. I believe we’re supposed to be there. How’s that for an optimist?”
With the USC campus closed indefinitely, the launch in August has resulted in a slower build of momentum in local awareness. In the meantime, the cloud kitchen has been ingeniously dedicated to the production of Sky’s artisanal cheesecakes.
The cheesecakes are offered in four varieties by the slice or whole cake—plain ($2.85/$19.99); mango ($3.50/$22.50); pineapple ($3.75/$23.50); or the popular favorite, caramel crunch ($3.99/$24.99). Made from scratch, these cheesecakes are truly delectable and a great value for the freshness and quality delivered. And there’s still time to order for Thanksgiving.
In looking to the new location near USC and the greater Downtown community, Burrell has a message: “We’re there to serve you. Most importantly, we’re there to ensure you have a really good experience. God heal this land. There’s Sky’s. We’re waiting for you!”