Greg Norrish put down roots in Sacramento by waiting tables at Magpie Cafe, running Pioneer House retirement community’s kitchen and improving CalFresh access from within the state Director of Social Services’ Office over nine years.
It took a heritage-hunting trip back to South Korea, a country he hadn’t seen since he was an infant, for Norrish to realize the dream of opening his own restaurant. CaliTaco got off the ground in Seoul in June. Now Norrish might not come back to California.
Adopted from South Korea at 4 months old and raised in Connecticut, Norrish, 32, had little interest in his biological family or his native country before last year. He hadn’t seen his adoption papers before his adoptive parents brought them on a visit to the West Coast last year, and he didn’t quite know what to do with the documents when he got them.
So he did what many Gen Y members would do: he posted them on Instagram. A friend of a friend in Seoul saw the picture and pointed him toward Social Welfare Services’ Welcome Home program, which organizes weeklong trips to give Korean adoptees a glimpse of their native country.
Norrish got placed on a trip and took off in August 2017. He knew he was coming back by the sixth day of the trip. Too many questions about his homeland and birth mother lingered, and two months later he was boarding a plane to Seoul with no job and minimal plans for when he arrived.
“I was experiencing a whole bunch of different emotions and felt like I needed to take to take the time to explore what it means to be Korean, and more specifically an adoptee,” Norrish said. “This part of life, for most adoptees, is so disconnected and there’s so much to process that the only thing you can do is to say yes to everything and embrace everything.”
His move to Seoul wasn’t the first time he made a big move and embraced the culture. AmeriCorps service brought Norrish to McClellan Air Force Base in 2008, and he soon developed a passion for improving needy people’s accessibility to healthy eating.
An internship at Heavy Dirt Farm in Davis turned into management of the Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services’ garden program. He became the board chair of Oak Park Sol, a nonprofit that works on projects of all kinds in the historic neighborhood. And he hosted low-cost pop-up dinners while earning a master’s degree in public health from George Washington University’s online program.
Norrish’s adaptability and willingness to try new things came in handy in Seoul after four months of tutoring and teaching himself Korean. While out for a drink at Nest of Goose wine bar in the trendy Ikseon-Dong neighborhood one February night, he struck up a conversation with employees. They invited him to come back and cook a couple dishes, which turned into a job making small plates and pasta for the 25-seat restaurant.
“He is a people person in every aspect,” said his mother, Carole Norrish. “He loves to talk to people, people love to talk to him and he can talk about everything. When you meet him, he will make you think he’s your best friend — he just has that kind of personality.”
As Norrish’s life in Seoul was coming together, though, the search for his biological family was losing steam. Police called him one day in March to say they were 99 percent sure his birth mother had died. He was contemplating moving back to the U.S. when he walked into Nest of Goose that night.
His coworkers gave him a reason to stay. The restaurant across the street had gone out out business, they said, and the landlord was willing to lease the unit the next day. All that was needed was a concept.
Despite the explosion of Mexican restaurants in Korea over the last 10 years, greasy taquerias in the vein of Chita’s or La Garnacha had largely eluded Norrish since October, he said. He pitched CaliTaco as food for the beginning or end of a bar-hopper’s journey, with 2 a.m. closing times on weekends and affordable prices compared to many other eateries around Seoul — the second-most expensive city in Asia last year, per economic analysis firm ECA International.
CaliTaco opened in June with a kitchen of people Norrish wanted to work with, regardless of culinary experience. He’s the chef and creative director, manages the taqueria’s social media and trains the staff, most of whom he found on Craigslist and social media.
“We’re not doing authentic Mexican-style tacos. We’re not doing L.A. street tacos,” Norrish said. “We’re doing good drunk tacos, the kind you want when you’re coming back from a night out.”
Tacos piled high with globs of cheese, guacamole and salsa run $9 per pair, while thick burritos cost around $12. Cocktails made from four to five different types of liquor come in three flavors — red, blue and margarita — and cost $15 for a liter-and-a-half bucket of booze topped with a pineapple ring.
Northern California beers from North Coast Brewing Co., Anderson Valley Brewing Co. and Lost Coast Brewery are all available, as well as Mexican lagers and sodas. The beers are a welcome slice of home for Norrish as well as a surprising amount of customers. CaliTaco served a couple from Roseville on its first day in business and two McClatchy High School alumni a short while after, and now counts a Placerville native as a regular, Norrish said.
And California might not have seen the last of Norrish, who grills every day next to a wall bearing the word “Sac” and a heart symbol. After a childhood spent in Connecticut and stops in New Orleans and Salt Lake City, he knows where he wants to be if he moves stateside again.
“If I were to move back, it would be to NorCal,” he said. “I still have lots of friends and family in Sac, and there’s still a lot of things I want to do there.”