Sky’s Gourmet Tacos gets ready for its biggest opening yet — Hollywood Park
Barbara “Sky” Burrell knows fear: The chef, founder and owner of Sky’s Gourmet Tacos kept her restaurant running through the 1992 riots, the Northridge earthquake, the deaths of her youngest son and her fiancé, and her battle with cancer. It’s been an eventful 29 years since she launched the soul-food-inflected taco shop.
“I’ve dealt with fear,” she said. “I’ve dealt with fear for many, many years, and I have an expression about fear: It’s like, ‘You’re fearful? Good. Crawl under the fence. Just get there.’ Fear is gonna be there.” Everyone feels fear, she adds, but to overcome it, you have to meet it, to channel it, to run toward it.
Now, in the planning stages of her largest undertaking yet, she’s facing fear head-on. “However you have to get past it, around it, facing it — do it. ‘Crawl under the fence’ is simply an expression; that’s one way to get there.” she said. “I crawled under the fence a long time ago.”
In November 2022, Burrell is set to open a sprawling new Sky’s Gourmet Tacos in Hollywood Park, a 300-acre behemoth of a business development project that’s already home to SoFi Stadium (the site of next year’s Super Bowl LVI), and a casino. It eventually will be home to a movie theater, 2,500 private residences, a retail district, an art gallery, a brewery and restaurants, including Burrell’s.
The 3,800-square-foot space just off Century Boulevard in Inglewood will include a large dining room; a lounge featuring a piano bar and other live entertainment multiple nights of the week; Burrell’s first dedicated bar; a patio; and private event spaces — not to mention new menu items and new job positions, such as a dedicated event planner, that she’s never had to hire for before.
Sometimes, she said, when she’s lying awake at night — when her headspace “gets empty” — Burrell worries about the details of the restaurant and how the whole vision will take shape. Will they have enough food? Will they have enough time? The thoughts don’t intrude for long because the next morning, she’s channeling that fear into logistics and team building. Most days, she’s testing new menu items in the kitchen of her Marina del Rey restaurant, deli and market where she bases her catering operation, but she also stops by her mid-Wilshire flagship on Pico Boulevard, three or four days a week.
In between picking out the new restaurant’s flooring or the materials for seating, she’s building her dream menu to match her dream kitchen of 1,000 square feet — double the space she has at the Pico site. In addition to her signature “Mexican, with a splash of soul” tacos, which have cradled crawfish, filet mignon, tilapia and more traditional fillings like carnitas or a potato-and-cheese mix into corn tortillas for nearly 30 years, she envisions a broader menu of dishes that are better suited to full-service dining and lingering in the space: large-format brisket and tri-tip, served on a cutting board and eaten alongside fresh arepas, perhaps, or wet burritos smothered in house-made sauces and salsas.
The new restaurant also will feature a small marketplace where visitors can pick up a bottle of Burrell’s “sassy sauce” or the house all-purpose seasoning blend. She’s hoping international travelers drawn to the stadium and Hollywood Park will take back Sky’s flavorings or merch and spread the word about her restaurants. Burrell has always hoped that the Sky’s brand — and her empire — would go international, and the new location is her springboard. It just took a number of years — and hardships — to get here.
“This is something that I used to put in my dream book, and you never know how your dreams are going to come true,” she said. “But this is a dream that has come true, that is coming true. I see the opening day, I see everything, and it gives me goosebumps because it’s been so many years and so much work, and so much pain.”
At the age of 12, Burrell tasted her first taco just outside of Chicago, after spotting its likeness in a neon sign. The future chef convinced her mom to pull over and buy her one. The Sky’s founder remembers it wasn’t necessarily a good taco.
Burrell continued experimenting through the years: Through marriage, through divorce, for birthdays, she was always making tacos. “Every milestone in life? Tacos,” she said. It became what she was known for, even without owning a restaurant. In 1992 — on March 5 at 1:44 p.m., she’ll tell you precisely — Burrell, most recently an asset manager for an investment firm, opened her first Sky’s Gourmet Tacos, down the street from her flagship location, and began making a name for herself.
Then came the 1992 uprising in late April and early May, six days of protests and riots in response to the acquittal of four LAPD officers in the beating of Rodney G. King.
“In just that short period of time, I’d become a destination [restaurant]. ... So here comes the riots and everything shuts down,” Burrell said. “I become fearful because I’m on limited resources; two wonderful sons, but limited resources. And guess what? I kept on doing it.” Burrell began cooking free meals for people on the street during the tumult and remained open until then-president George H.W. Bush declared martial law. She quickly reopened and kept going.
She kept going while she was being treated for breast cancer.
In 1994, she was diagnosed and underwent multiple rounds of chemo but she never closed the restaurant, relying on her two sons — then in their 20s — to run the business under her direction. That was also the year of the devastating Northridge earthquake, which cracked and crumbled walls in her home but not her restaurant, so she continued to come to work every day.
“Fear, fear,” she mused. “What’s going to happen to the business? Passion is a beautiful thing — it takes you there — but perseverance takes you through and keeps you there.”
Beyond the tumult of Los Angeles in the early ’90s, she’s had to deal with the unrelated deaths of her younger son, Jerry, and her fiancé. But she persevered. She built a team to support her and her vision — including her older son, Victor, who serves as the company president, and her daughter-in-law, who is the catering director.
Since then, Burrell and her crew moved their flagship down the street. They expanded to Marina del Rey. They launched, and then shuttered, a cloud-kitchen outpost downtown. Now they’re working toward opening their largest restaurant yet, the first space Burrell can build from the ground, up. They all hope it’s just the beginning of Sky’s worldwide empire.
“It’s been a rough ride, but when you have a team it’s not so rough because you’ve only got to carry a little bit,” Burrell said. “There hasn’t been the fear that you carry when you’re by yourself. ... With a team, you share this burden, especially when everybody’s all in — and my team is all in. And I’m so proud of them.”
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