Photo by Anne FishbeinAuthenticity comes in many flavors in Los Angeles, from the goat stew at places that seem plucked straight out of the Guadalajara suburbs to French dip sandwiches assembled the same way since 1903, from the quivering cubes of duck blood on a dim sum cart to chicken pot pies like your grandmother used to make, from lox wings to finnan haddie.
The real thing, though, can be hard to pin down. Udon noodles hand-thrown by the Gardena master whose family has been hand-throwing udon noodles for generations are undeniably authentic, but so in its way is the version of spaghetti Bolognese up the street, garnished with bacon, sliced hot dogs and cheese from a can in perfect homage to the food the Japanese chefs may have learned to cook during the American occupation. The steamed Vietnamese rice-flour rolls called banh cuon are authentic, but so are banh mi, the Vietnamese hoagies Saigon street vendors picked up from the French. Japanese sashimi is authentic, but so is the Korean adaptation, seasoned with hot bean paste and raw garlic instead of wasabi and soy — and in its way, so is the California roll, a spontaneous local riff on the classic form.
And then there's L.A.'s version of Mexican food. Everybody, I think, knows what goes into an “authentic” taco: grilled animal, chopped onions and maybe a little cilantro, a splash of hot salsa and a flourish. Two-dollar tacos overflow with beefy abundance; 50-cent tacos are more tortilla than meat. Ensenada-style tacos are plump with fried fish and mayonnaise; Yucatecan tacos are garnished with red pickled onions; Mexico Citystyle tacos are, I don't know, clean-tasting and small.
Which brings us to Sky's Gourmet Tacos, a small, immaculate restaurant on a gentrifying stretch of Pico, not far from Maurice's Snack n' Chat and any number of tiny lunch counters, body shops and hair-weave salons. Sky's, an African-American taco stand, is . . . different. The walls are lined with pictures of jazz musicians where you'd expect to see norteño stars, and the stack of periodicals in the corner includes black entertainment tabloids and black business journals instead of frayed copies of La Opinión. The music on the radio is R&B. And the smell in the air, the indescribable cooking aroma that can pinpoint your location in the world far more accurately than any GPS, is somehow closer to a cumin-scented Caribbean restaurant than it is to East L.A.
“Sky's is proud to offer all our gastronomic creations prepared without lard, oil, artificial additives or preservatives,” says a notice on the menu. The “corporate lunches,” available for delivery with a day's advance notice, include things like Mayan grilled skirt steak with jicama fritti and shrimp enchiladas with chipotle-cilantro cream.
Sky's are not the tacos your mother used to make. Or rather, they probably are the tacos your mother used to make (unless you happened to grow up in a Mexican household): two thick corn tortillas molded into the bottom of a red plastic carhop basket, mounded with turkey or chicken, shrimp or beef, gilded with orange cheese, buried under shredded lettuce and doused with the sweet-hot house salsa. If you want what you might ordinarily call a taco, ask for the smaller “tacolitas” instead.
The steak in the tacos, rubbed with spices and seared to a blackened medium-rare before it is sliced, is pure Mom's cooking too, much closer in flavor to a Southern American T-bone than it is to the usual thin, tough, citrus-scented carne asada; the shrimp are fairly clumsily spiced, but also practically exude a homemade quality.
The open-face “burritos” are more or less the tacos written in triplicate, huge masses of meat, lettuce and cheese layered onto bulletproof flour tortillas, luxuriating in pools of tasty orange grease and slicked with big clots of cool sour cream . . . a fork-and-knife burrito if you've ever seen one. And just the thing for a quick lunch, perhaps sluiced down with a quart-size glass of homemade lemonade. Sky's is a different sort of authenticity.
5408 W. Pico Blvd.; (323) 932-6253. Open Mon.Thurs. 11 a.m.7:30 p.m., Fri.Sat. 11 a.m.9 p.m. Lunch for two, food only, $8$12. No alcohol. Catering and “corporate lunches.” Street parking. D, MC, V. Recommended dishes: shrimp taco, steak burrito.