While in college, I once rode in a friend’s old, windowless van. It had a hole in the floorboard, next to an exhaust pipe that spewed its fumes into the cabin. After I got out, every inch of me—my clothes, my hair, my skin—smelled as if I’d been hickory smoked, as though I were a slab of brisket in Texas, except with a big smear of 10w30 oil. I had flashbacks of that ride as I ate Skyloft’s barbecue. It is, without question, the smokiest plate of meat I’ve ever tasted. Hours after consuming it, my burps reeked of its bitter smoke. I could smell it in my nostrils. I felt it coming out of my pores. It haunted me the rest of that afternoon as if I were possessed by the ghost of hickories past.
Every molecule of the baby back ribs, every slice of the brisket, even the herb-crusted half-chicken Skyloft serves were so completely saturated with smoke that the glaze slathered on the ribs and the au jus dip for the brisket barely registered. If some readjustment to its barbecue is due, it’s because Skyloft is new. For now, the restaurant doesn’t even have a sign, just two flapping banners above the one for Tommy Bahama on the outside of Laguna Beach’s historic Heisler building.
You get the feeling that when Mozambique owner Ivan Spiers secured the lease on this space that was once Rock’N Fish, the first thing he saw was the potential of its rooftop deck. He most likely envisioned the bar he’d set up there, the views of the sunset over Main Beach, his customers clinking cocktail glasses under the stars. The thought of what kind of food he’d serve here, I imagine, came later.
But Spiers is right to have coveted the space. The city approved Rock’N Fish’s plans for Laguna Beach’s first rooftop deck, but the seafood restaurant never got around to implementing it before it shuttered in late 2014. Now that it’s open as Skyloft, you should insist on a seat up top. With soaring vantage points, you see it all: waves crashing on sand, the surrounding hills and the pedestrian bustle of PCH. But even without the deck, Skyloft is already sprawling. Its second floor is a maze of rooms that includes a bar, a private dining area, a second dining room and a lit stage with instruments for nightly live music acts. But as the sun sets, the second floor is deserted. Everyone who comes to Skyloft wants to be on that deck—and not necessarily to eat barbecue.
Burgers and club sandwiches, three-tiered things cut into fourths that come in either turkey or tri-tip, seem to be the most popular items. I tried the cheeseburger on my second visit, and I realized then it was the perfect food to eat on the rooftop. Unlike with the ribs, I didn’t have to divert my attention from the vistas as I ate. Despite its size, the sturdy bun contained everything stuffed inside it snugly without any seepage of sauce or juice.
It was one of the neatest burgers I’ve encountered. The thick, loosely packed, half-pound patty was seared to a lovely crust with just enough tomato, lettuce, garlic mayo and red onion to counteract its beefiness. And it came with fries covered by a little bit of batter—my favorite kind. It was also on that second visit that I tried the better rendition of baby backs, the Firecracker Ribs, an appetizer that has the same smoky bones cut into individual portions, deep-fried, then shellacked in a sticky-sweet, tangy, spicy sauce that manages to finally balance out the smoke.
Skyloft offers other vaguely Southern-styled items, including tiny hockey pucks of cornbread studded with bits of corn kernels and jalapeños, as well as a version of gumbo that’s less hearty stew and more light soup. But I liked how the rice absorbed the gently spiced broth, turning the gumbo into a warm bowl of snugly comfort food. And I could’ve eaten a dozen of the cornbread pucks despite the rock-hard ramekin of butter the kitchen neglected to soften.
But even considering all the barbecue and jambalaya, Skyloft is still a purely California construct, with kale in the Caesar salad and turkey in the chili. Its most inspired dish is a messy, tempura-covered halved avocado that’s topped with shrimp, crawfish tails, sweet corn relish and a zigzag of Cajun aioli—an appetizer that tastes less Southern and more Southern Californian, especially when you eat it on that rooftop bar at sunset, surrounded by the Laguna glitterati.
Skyloft, 422 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 715-1550; skyloftoc.com. Open daily, 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Dinner for two, $30-$50, food only. Full bar.