From tacos to gumbo, recipes to celebrate the evolution of California soul food

Barbara "Sky" Burrell, owner and chef of Sky's Gourmet Tacos, preparing shrimp tacos at her restaurant.

Barbara “Sky” Burrell, owner and chef of Sky’s Gourmet Tacos, preparing shrimp tacos at her restaurant.
(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)
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Southern California’s love affair with the taco is hardly a secret. Here in Los Angeles, we’re privy to innumerable regional takes, all reflecting waves of historical and recent immigration to California from Mexico’s distinct regions, and the culinary practices that migrate as well.

The tacos I grew up eating at home resemble the tacos dorados that San Bernardino’s family-owned Mitla Cafe introduced to the region in 1937. At times referred to as the “gringo” taco (and sometimesdisparaged as such by people with ethnic Mexican heritage), this style of taco eventually became popular at fast-casual restaurants across America. In fact, as Times columnist Gustavo Arellano wrote in his book “Taco USA,” Mitla Cafe was the place that inspired Taco Bell founder Glen Bell to start the now-global chain.

I was raised across San Diego and Riverside before settling in Los Angeles in adulthood. As I began exploring the city’s Black-owned restaurant scene as a food journalist, I noticed overlap between the tacos my mother made for my siblings and me at home and the ones offered at spots around town. Often, the same folded and fried tortilla shell was featured with ground beef or turkey, yellow cheese, shredded lettuce and tomatoes.

“Being Black and growing up in Los Angeles, they were in every household. Everyone’s mom made tacos,” Alisa Reynolds, chef and owner of My 2 Cents on Pico Boulevard, told me for my L.A. Times Food feature “How we made tacos a Black thing in L.A.,” published this week.

A plate with two tacos, Mexican rice and refried beans

Black tacos are often served in a fried shell with ground turkey, shredded cheese and lettuce, with sides like Mexican rice and refried beans.
(Danielle Dorsey / Los Angeles Times)

More than 30 years ago, a pioneering class of Black chefs in L.A., many of whom were trained in their home kitchens, put their stamp on the taco, inducting it into California soul cuisine. The dish — what I’ve come to think of as the Black taco — has established itself as a local staple, with new Black-owned taco stands still building on its legacy today.

Barbara Burrell in the kitchen, prepares two shrimp tacos

(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

“I grew up around a lot of Hispanic people in Watts, but really, my tacos are inspired by my mom,” says Keith Garrett, who’s behind the All Flavor No Grease food truck that parks on the corner of Manchester and Western Avenue. “If she says she’s making tacos, it doesn’t matter where I am — I’m on the way,” he says, laughing.

Dig deeper into the evolution of Black tacos with my essay, as well as a guide with nine places to try Black tacos across L.A. and a profile of an elusive Leimert Park taco window that draws hours-long lines.

In the spirit of Black History Month and L.A.’s Black-led taco scene, I’ve collected a handful of recipes that celebrate the evolution of California soul food.

First, I dug through our archives to find recipes from “Jemima Code” and “Jubilee” cookbook author — and former L.A. Times Food journalist — Toni Tipton-Martin. The food historian and first Black food editor of a major newspaper (the Cleveland Plain Dealer) extols the benefits of turkey as a low-fat alternative to pork and beef, including a turkey tostada and Caribbean turkey salad.

A woman stands behind a park bench in a lush outdoor setting.

Toni Tipton-Martin, author of “Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African American Cooking.”
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

And if you’re in the mood for a warming soup, try making the vegetarian gombo that chef Keith Corbin serves at his California soul restaurant Alta Adams.

Finally, if all that taco talk has you in the mood for a nostalgic take on a fast-casual favorite, I recommend columnist Jenn Harris’ homemade Taco Bell Crunchwrap supreme.

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Turkey Tostada With Chipotle Sauce

In a 1989 nutrition column for The Times, James Beard Award-winning author Toni Tipton-Martin provides guidance for adapting turkey to recipes traditionally made with pork or beef. She recommends making the turkey tostada by frying blue corn tortillas in oil until crisp and then patting them with paper towels to remove excess oil, a method that is common in Black taco preparations. Ground turkey also stands out as a common filling in Black tacos, though Tipton-Marin’s tostada features sliced and grilled turkey breast.

Get the recipe
Makes 8 servings.

Caribbean Turkey Salad With Orange Vinaigrette

In the same roundup of turkey recipes, Tipton-Martin offers two easy, Caribbean-inspired recipes with honey-roasted turkey breast, including a citrus-driven salad with chopped pineapple and dried banana chips. If you’re craving something a bit heartier, her Island Turkey-Rice Salad substitutes orange juice for lime and adds rice, golden raisins and salted peanuts.

Get the recipe
Makes 4 servings.

Island Turkey-Rice Salad

Get the recipe.

Makes 6 servings.

Vegan gombo

Chef Keith Corbin's vegetarian gumbo

Alta Adams chef Keith Corbin’s vegan gombo, prepared in the L.A. Times Test Kitchen.
(Katrina Frederick / For The Times)

The designated state cuisine of Louisiana, gumbo — or “gombo,” the spelling closer to the West African word for “okra” — is a rich stew with trademarks that include shellfish, the Creole “holy trinity” of celery, onions and bell peppers and often, sausage and chicken. At the California soul restaurant Alta Adams, chef Keith Corbin reinterprets the Southern staple into a plant-based dish that brims with local produce. Make Corbin’s recipe to warm up the next time a rainstorm blows through Southern California.

Get the recipe.
Makes 12-15 servings. Cooking time: 75 minutes to 2 hours.

Homemade Crunchwrap Supreme

Homemade Taco Bell Crunchwrap Supreme

(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

No matter how much I “refine” my palate, it’s the nostalgic dishes I grew up with that remain the most satisfying, including my mother’s tacos. When her tacos are out of reach, I sate that craving with tacos from places like Sky’s Gourmet Tacos or Worldwide Tacos. Sometimes I attempt to make them at home.

Food columnist Jenn Harris’ Homemade Crunchwrap Supreme is perfect for when you’re craving fast-casual American-style tacos, but don’t want to brave the drive-through lines. Piled with cumin-seasoned ground beef, cheese sauce, shredded lettuce, tomato and sliced olives, it’s an elevated take on Taco Bell’s iconic item and overlaps with the tacos my mom made for me growing up.

Get the recipe.
Makes 8 wraps. Cooking time: 45 minutes.

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