Two weeks ago, the world’s only Ohlone restaurant lost its home when Berkeley’s 46-year-old University Press Books closed its doors, a casualty of the coronavirus pandemic. Cafe Ohlone’s chef-founders — partners Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino — are looking for a new location for their pop-up Indigenous dining experience, but, in the meantime, they are working on launching takeout dinner boxes this summer for diners to enjoy a taste of the East Bay’s first cuisine at home.
A public space for Ohlone communities
It was a quiet departure for Cafe Ohlone from University Press Books, as it happened under the cover of the shelter-in-place lockdown; the pop-up had stopped operating three months prior, on March 14, for the safety of the tribal community. The end of Cafe Ohlone at University Press is significant because the bookstore’s back patio was where the restaurant first gained local fame and national acclaim for its intimate and interactive tea tastings, lunches, brunches and dinners. And it wasn’t just a restaurant to introduce non-Indigenous people to Ohlone food, but also a place for the local Native communities to gather in a public space together.
Diners who came for meals at Cafe Ohlone did more than just eat. Sitting together at a communal table, they participated in a deeper, more holistic happening. Every meal started with an introduction, with Medina and Trevino sharing personal stories, history and context, as well as the Ohlone names, of the food they prepared. Guests talked to each other, played rounds of tribal games, listened to Ohlone music spun by a DJ, and heard people speak Chochenyo and other Indigenous languages. Many of the staff members and diners were from Ohlone and other American Indian communities.
“We don’t have many physical spaces that are just for Ohlone people,” Medina said. “[Cafe Ohlone] filled that need for us. Now, we can’t think of a world without that. It’s impossible to think of a world without Cafe Ohlone.”
Medina and Trevino are certain they’ll reopen. They’d like to remain in Berkeley, but are amenable to other East Bay cities with strong Ohlone connections (“where our families’ old pre-contact areas are,” Medina explained), such as San Leandro, San Lorenzo, Castro Valley, Hayward, Fremont or Niles.
While the location is yet to be determined, Medina and Trevino have a strong vision for the next Cafe Ohlone. It will be part restaurant, part community center, where meals might be served a few days a week, with the rest of the time devoted to intergenerational cultural development, like Ohlone language revival and basketry classes. They’re especially considering venues with outdoor areas, where visitors can directly connect to the elements. Their main priority though, Medina said, is to “have space with the public in our own terms.”
The Cafe Ohlone experience in a takeout box
Neither founder is in a hurry to reopen a physical location with the pandemic in full swing. Medina said the new Cafe Ohlone will not open until there’s a COVID-19 vaccine. The wellbeing of their tribal families, especially their elders is and has always been their number one concern, and until people can safely gather together in close spaces, they’re fine with staying closed.
“The elders, we have to protect them, as well as other people who are not in our community. Everybody deserves safety. We’re not going to open up just for short-term profits. When there is a new Cafe Ohlone, it will be in the future when it is safe.”
With a post-coronavirus future still distant and uncertain, Medina and Trevino have a stop-gap solution — a Cafe Ohlone dinner box, offered monthly for contact-less pickup starting in late August or early September, depending on when they can secure a commercial kitchen. More meal kit than regular prepared to-go fare, these curated boxes will be filled with locally gathered, seasonal ingredients for diners to prepare a multi-course Ohlone feast at home, a pandemic-safe stand-in for Cafe Ohlone’s bi-weekly Saturday night “mur” dinners.
Contents of the takeout boxes may include components like dried rosehips to steep into a floral, tart tea; cuts of tender venison backstrap to prepare with smoked walnut oil; gathered greens, fruits and nuts to toss together for an Ohlone salad and a Mason jar filled with the duo’s signature blackberry bay laurel sauce; and Ohlone desserts to cap the meal. So diners can recreate the peaceful Cafe Ohlone ambiance at their home, the kits will contain a candle and a shareable music playlist, along with natural elements unique to Ohlone lands, like fragrant bay laurel leaves, ceanothus blooms and chunks of salt gathered from East Bay salt flats. A cord of tule — a versatile plant material Ohlone people use for making baskets, houses, boats, etc. — will tie everything in the box together. Medina said the curated boxes would “show how nature shapes our culture and identity and food.”
A component from the “mur” dinners that will be harder to recreate with takeout are the spoken presentations by Medina, Trevino, and other Ohlone tribe members that start every meal. But the pair has a solution for that. They will record introductions and post them on Vimeo for diners to watch before their meals, to “see other faces, and hear and see Ohlone people, even if they’re not at the cafe.”
Quarantine baking and Zoom, the Ohlone revival during COVID-19
Language and food are indelibly linked for the duo. For the past three months, Medina and Trevino have been active in leading and participating in projects that strengthen, revitalize and reclaim Ohlone culture. Medina, a member of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, recently took on the role of chairman of his tribe’s language committee, which hosts Zoom lessons in the Chochenyo language on Thursdays. Trevino, a Rumsen Ohlone community member, is also deeply involved in the revitalization of the Rumsen language.
“The work we’ve done since we closed has been taking this big shift inward with our community and finding ways while we’re all home to be able to find innovative ways to spread culture, language, food and take care of our elders, which is in all honesty, is how our family, our tribal community, has always responded,” said Medina.
In early June, Medina and Trevino took part in an online cooking series hosted by Davidson College featuring Indigenous chefs across America. Over Zoom, the pair demonstrated making an Ohlone meal with locally sourced ingredients: mussels and clams in a California sea lettuce broth topped with chopped scallions; a salad of sorrel, watercress, blackberries, bay laurel, gooseberry and walnuts; and an acorn-enriched sourdough bread (Medina and Trevino said they too got swept into the quarantine sourdough baking trend, but they make an “Ohlone-ized” version with acorn oil). While the duo steamed the shellfish and meticulously prepared the ingredients for the salad, they fielded questions from the host and viewers about Ohlone ingredients, cooking tools and techniques.
Medina and Trevino find virtue in virtual presentations, and may even continue doing online programs after the pandemic ends, but Medina said the in-person experience is integral for sharing and spreading their message that Ohlone people are alive and well.
“We want it to be as impactful as possible, as local as possible. It would be great to be able to see us, hear our story and share who we are,” Medina said.
Visit the Mak-‘amham website to sign up for their newsletter where you’ll get the latest Cafe Ohlone updates and to buy a gift certificate or make a donation to support their work.