There certainly isn’t a shortage of food mashups in Southern California, and the concept of a sushi taco isn't exactly new. However, the culinary creation that Michelle Tran of Norigami Tacos has dreamed up and made into a reality — a deep-fried, tempura-battered seaweed taco shell that’s stuffed with everything you’d find in a sushi roll — is a fusion dish that stands out in a sea of Instagrammable foods.
“With the creation of the sushi-nori taco, I was hoping it would become popular, but I didn’t expect it would become as popular as it is now,” Tran says. “People from all over the country [from New York to Florida] message us [to ask] how can they get their hands on one and how to get it to their state, which is really rewarding to hear.”
It isn’t always easy to get access to a Norigami taco, even for Angelenos. Tran doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar restaurant at the moment, so the only way to try one (or a few) of her crunchy tacos is at food festivals like OC Night Market and 626 Night Market. She'll be stationed at the latter Sept. 1-3.
In early August, I found Norigami Tacos at another 626 Night Market event, after seeing rows and rows of other trendy street food, from rainbow-striped “unicorn corn” to another taco vendor whose “tortillas” were made entirely of fried cheese. But it was hard to miss Norigami — even the decorations for its stall stood out, with purple-and-white lanterns and leafy vines hanging from its metal frame.
In a similar fashion, Norigami’s tacos themselves are equally photo-ready. The Mr. Krabs is stuffed with sushi rice, imitation crab meat and a whole, deep-fried soft-shell crab with its crispy legs fanned out over the top of the nori shell — then it's showered with purple flower petals and microgreens. The Maui Wowie taco is a Hawaiian-style poké, with marinated tuna and salmon, covered with a drizzle of creamy wasabi mayo, yellow petals and black and white sesame seeds.
While presentation is key for the 27-year-old chef, it’s important to her that it’s not just all show. “I wanted to do street food that looks really nice but also has great flavors,” Tran says.
She took her cue on presentation from her former boss and mentor, Shachi Mehra, who is the chef and co-owner of ADYA, an Indian street-food restaurant at the Anaheim Packing District food hall. Five years ago, Tran was just a college student studying sociology and feeling unmotivated with school when she applied for a job as a cook at ADYA. The restaurant made a huge impact on her, with Mehra encouraging Tran to start her own business.
“I’d always been interested in cooking from a really young age,” Tran says. “I always cooked for fun, but I never thought about it as a career.”
Tran says that since Mehra had experience in fine dining, it was at ADYA that she learned to present her dishes on a “finer scale.” She discovered what a huge role presentation plays in food, even with street food, which she found fun to make.
Prior to ADYA, Tran had cut her teeth at Matsu, a Japanese sushi bar in Huntington Beach. She says the owner, whom she also considers a mentor, taught her about perfecting all the little details, not just in Japanese food but in running a business as well. Tran, who is Vietnamese, says the Japanese culture’s “obsession with perfection” was something that fascinated her.
The amalgamation of her restaurant experience and her love for street food — something she credits to her Vietnamese background — led her to launch Norigami Tacos in early 2016 for her first event at OC Night Market. Tran loved the taste of seaweed and thought fried nori would be a good texture component for sushi, so she put those two things together and created the sushi-nori taco.
Tran’s penchant for creating new things has led her to launch other concoctions that she lists as specials on her menu. If patrons are lucky, they might get to try Tran's sushi burrito; its nori wrap is dipped in tempura batter and deep-fried, just like her tacos. She also has been stuffing her crispy seaweed shells with seasoned ramen noodles, slow-braised Japanese pork belly and spicy cheese corn, a nod to the popular Korean bar food snack.
For now, Tran is working hard with her team at events until she is able to save enough money and find the right space to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Her first location will most likely be in Orange County. “Most of the people who have been working with me since the beginning are situated in OC, and I’m from the OC as well,” Tran says, “so I thought it would be cool to open it in our hometown.”