Sky’s Gourmet Tacos: Applying Soulful, Freewheeling Approach

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Restaurant Los Angeles

Barbara J. "Sky" Burrell infuses Mexican tacos with soul in Mid-City.

Sky’s Gourmet Tacos owner Barbara J. “Sky” Burrell began cooking chicken tacos at home while she was pregnant. It wasn’t long before she began experimenting with other ingredients and developed enough recipes to fuel a restaurant. Sky said, “I wanted to do something I loved. I loved to cook and produce wonderful food. It was a spiritual thing that I go and do tacos. That was in my heart.”

Sky opened her eponymous restaurant on March 5, 1992, on a stretch of Pico previously known for auto body and custom furniture shops. Salmon colored walls feature a painting of elephants and a portrait of jazz bassist Charlie Burrell, Sky’s father and the first African-American in a major symphony. He recently retired from the Colorado Symphony at 83. Order from a window and they’ll bring the food to your table. There are four green plastic tables on the sidewalk and six wooden tables inside.

In addition to the chicken tacos and a full menu, Sky’s offers three unique dishes: shrimp tacos, lemonade and cheesecake, all unlike (and probably better than) any you’ve had before.

Mexican Soul Food Los Angeles

In Sky’s world, a taco, quesadilla, and burrito are essentially variations on the same thing: tortillas with choice of topping, shredded iceberg lettuce, spicy salsa and sour cream. A quesadilla is a double-decker taco. And the open-face burrito is just a taco with more toppings. There’s even a “super-shrimp burrito” that’s an awful lot like the shrimp burrito, only with twice as many shrimp. Sky charges 40 cents extra for flour tortillas with her tacos; pay it.

Taco Los Angeles

The shrimp taco is Sky’s signature dish. Sky said, “The tortilla dipped in the seasonings becomes part of the taco as a whole. There are freshly ground seasonings on the tortillas and grilled shrimp: wonderful chilies, cumin, garlic, and oregano.” Topped with shredded iceberg lettuce and spicy salsa for crunch and kick, it’s certainly a contender for L.A.’s Best Taco.

Mexican Soul Food Los Angeles

Sky’s is more than just a one-dish restaurant, as their beef quesadilla proves.

Sky’s favorite dish, an open-faced turkey chili burrito, is another winner. “We put the chili on the grill, which dries it, add cheese on the top and bottom, lettuce and sour cream. It has the flavor of old Mexico.”

The flavor of old Mexico is apparently pretty healthy. According to the menu, Sky’s avoids lard, oil, artificial additives and preservatives.

Taco Los Angeles

Sky’s culinary intuition has struck repeatedly in 2005. She’s added another instant classic, a taco topped with a slab of grilled salmon and Russian dressing-soaked cole slaw. Sky said, “The salmon tacos intuitively moved. It confused me a little; it was so unlike our other tacos. It wasn’t defined enough, but I wanted it to be soft to the palate.” There’s also a new grilled whitefish salad with a slab of fresh fish, wild rice, candied almonds and raspberry vinaigrette.

Cheesecake Los Angeles

For dessert, Sky’s features three creamy, beyond-delicious cheesecakes: original, pineapple, and caramel crunch (pictured) with a crushed walnut crust.

Buy Sky’s cheesecake either by the slice (“I’m being good”) or whole (“I’m sharing”). Cheesecake was an unlikely addition to the Sky’s menu, since she despises the dessert. Sky said, “I hate cheesecake, and I wanted a cheesecake that was creamy, that had the flavoring of South America, of Brazil. I didn’t want the tight, New York cheesecake. I worked to make it smooth and creamy.” Sky now has a variety of cheesecake that even she loves. As for how Sky settled on adding chunks of pineapple and caramel crunch, she said, “Things just hit me. You’re moved intuitively to do things.”

To drink, Sky’s sensational lemonade comes in a Mason jar with chipped ice. Sky said of her definitive version, “Everything here in my mind had to be defined. I didn’t want a lemonade made with powder. I wanted fresh lemons and sugar. I wanted everything to be defined. Did I get popped or what?” For a second option, she recently added Jamaica, a Mexican hibiscus flower drink, purple and less sweet.

With no formal training, and guided only by intuition, Sky hasn’t built her restaurant like other chef/owners. But that’s that beauty of Sky, and of Sky’s. Her freewheeling approach has led to unexpected food pairings and unimaginable flavor. Maybe more chefs should focus less on technique.

Sky’s Gourmet Tacos: Applying Soulful, Freewheeling Approach


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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