Wildly anticipated Cafe Ohlone opens for one-time tasting event

Iconic Indigenous restaurant Cafe Ohlone hopes to provide a bridge between UC Berkeley’s troubling past and a better future.

Vincent Medina (right) and Louis Trevino (left) at the future Cafe Ohlone site outside the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley, April 11, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Cafe Ohlone
Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, UC Berkeley
Expected to open June 2022, but tickets are available until April 21 for a preview tasting on April 23

Passing the courtyard outside UC Berkeley’s Anthropology building, you might not see much more than a pile of craggy boulders, a stack of lumber and a mound of ground shells. But to Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino, founders of Cafe Ohlone, those details are the emerging embodiment of Ohlone culture, one the region has been without for nearly two years — and one diners can see on April 23, when Medina and Trevino will offer a first look at the new restaurant and cultural space.

Cafe Ohlone was the first Indigenous restaurant in California when it opened in 2018 in the courtyard of Berkeley’s University Press Books. The cafe lost its home when, after 46 years in business, the bookstore closed forever just a few months into the pandemic.

Medina and Trevino, who are partners in life as well as business, planned a move to San Lorenzo or Niles, to maintain continuity with the areas their ancestors have always called home. But in an amazingly appropriate turn of events, the planned June 2022 opening of their new cafe will be a stone’s throw from their original location, in the completely redesigned Phoebe A. Hearst courtyard of the Hearst Museum on the UC Berkeley campus.

Preparations are still underway for the ambitiously designed space that Medina calls “a love song to Ohlone culture.” Created in partnership with designers from Terremoto, the outdoor restaurant will look like you are entering an Ohlone village space, with winding paths decked by dozens of plants and flowers, redwood tables and seats, murals by an Indigenous artist and a long redwood table saved for Medina and Trevino’s elders.

“Every time students walk onto campus, they will be reminded that the Ohlones are a living community, we never left and we’re still here. It’s a dream come true.”

A traditional shell mound will be built with these oyster and abalone shells at the future Cafe Ohlone site outside the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley, as seen on April 11, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

The road to Cal

Cafe Ohlone’s move to UC Berkeley started with a January 2021 article in the Daily Cal about de-naming the building that previously honored Alfred Kroeber, the controversial anthropologist who took custody of a Yahi man and presented him as a “living exhibit,” and erroneously claimed that Ohlone people were extinct.

Commenting on the naming issue, anthropology professor Kent Lightfoot said there were more important actions the university could undertake than removing Kroeber’s name. He suggested the school take tangible steps to support Ohlone people, including finding a new home on campus for Cafe Ohlone.

Lightfoot first met Medina 10 years ago, when Medina worked at Mission Dolores, a San Francisco church that was first constructed from 1782-91 with Native American labor. Medina spoke with the Mission’s visitors about its history from a Native perspective. “Vincent was young,” said Lightfoot, “but even then, he was eloquent and articulate about the history and relearning his language, Chochenyo. I knew then that this was somebody special.”

Medina and Trevino were intrigued by Lightfoot’s suggestion. Because their previous location was so close to the new one, they thought it would be symbolic to simply move across the street, bringing their living Ohlone objects, baskets, mortars and pestles to live alongside their older counterparts housed in the Hearst Museum. Soon, the project gained the support of Hearst Museum Director Lauren Kroiz and Chancellor Carol Christ, and eventually, UC Berkeley even created a fund patrons can contribute to and support the restaurant.

But before agreeing to go ahead with the plan, they checked with their elders, who gave their approval and cited this project as a symbol of a time for healing, as the Ohlone peoples’ connection to the Anthropology department at Cal has deeper and more sinister underpinnings.

Louis Trevino (left) and Vincent Medina (right) sit on local granite boulders that will be incorporated into seating at the future Cafe Ohlone site outside the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley, on April 11, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

The Hearst Museum’s problematic past

As Medina acknowledged when he first announced Cafe Ohlone’s plan to reopen at Cal, the museum’s history is a troubling one. Once the Ohlone tribe lost its federal recognition — due in large part to Kroeber’s pronouncement that there were no Ohlones left — Hearst Museum went onto Ohlone land and looted the tribe’s shellmounds.

“They went in and removed our ancestors from their cemeteries; they removed our cultural objects,” Medina said. “They just took as much as they could without any care about the sacred.”

Medina still remembers when he was 8 or 9 years old, an Ohlone elder telling him that “the remains of our ancestors are being kept in paint cans and plastic bags underneath the tennis courts at UC Berkeley and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

In the early ’90s, that was true. And according to Kroiz, while the “ancestors and belongings” of the Ohlones are no longer in paint cans and plastic bags, they are still housed at the Hearst Museum, but decisions regarding their future are out of her hands. That’s because repatriation — that is, the return of cultural items and remains to tribes and descendants — is subject to a federal and state law called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). UC NAGPRA is under the control of the Office of Government and Community Relations.

Kroiz said she was worried that the issue of stolen artifacts and remains might have kept Medina and Trevino from moving into the space. She said that she hopes this project can be a symbol “that we can make something new from the history we inherit.” According to Kroiz, when Medina and Trevino brought this concern up with their elders, they were told that “sometimes things don’t happen in the order that you think they will.”

Louis Trevino (left) and Vincent Medina (right) discuss planned features for the future Cafe Ohlone site outside the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley on April 11, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Lightfoot believes the new cafe, and what it symbolizes, will benefit the entire campus. “This will be a fabulous opportunity for the faculty, students, staff and the broader Berkeley community,” he said.  

“There are no better teachers than Vincent and Louis. Besides sharing the most delicious food, they describe where their ingredients come from and the role they played.” Lightfoot also hopes that the pair’s involvement will bring other Native peoples, both local, from across California and beyond to the campus.

“That’s what Cal really needs,” Lightfood said. “I hope they will be a catalyst to bring more Indigenous relationships to the Cal campus, which would be good for all of us.”

The new Cafe Ohlone

Originally, Medina and Trevino had hoped to open at the end of 2021, but that timeline proved to be overly optimistic and didn’t take into account the many bureaucratic hurdles that had to be jumped in a UC setting. Medina, Trevino and Kroiz all pulled together, and Christ also lent her backing at critical junctures, sending out emails to various administrators and departments that emphasized her strong support of the restaurant and the hope that it could be finished by Cal Day (April 23).

But while the restaurant isn’t fully ready for daily patrons quite yet — the plan now is to open to Ohlone community members in May, then to the general public in June — the Cal Day intro and tasting is moving forward, with reserved spots available in half-hour slots from 4-7 p.m. Reservations close on April 21, and must be made online.

Visitors at the event will be welcomed in groups of 30 for a 15-minute guided walk through the courtyard, where Medina and Trevino will describe the features of the space, followed by a 15-minute tasting. Their planned menu includes venison and mushroom skewers, acorn soup, fried sea lettuce and a chia seed brownie, accompanied by an Ohlone tea.

Vincent Medina (left) gestures to where a Native California oak tree will stand at the future Cafe Ohlone site outside the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley, on April 11, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Once it opens, Cafe Ohlone’s daily menu will include weekly offerings like tawwa-sii Wednesday (a weekly tea hour), weekly multi-course dinners and a Sunday brunch. Expect a wider menu than before: Although Medina and Trevino originally termed Cafe Ohlone a “guerrilla restaurant” and only served ingredients that their Indigenous ancestors ate before contact with outside cultures, they eventually made a couple of exceptions.

The pair say that the last two years have given them a lot of time to think and speak with their family members, realizing that in the years since colonization, their ancestors survived on and even enjoyed some foods adapted from their colonizers. So, alongside their classic Ohlone salads, potatoes in duck fat and chia seed pudding, their new menu will include bay laurel rabbit mole, black walnut cake, venison chili Colorado, piñon cake and rose hip torte.

 “The chilis and slow cooked stews tell a story specific to our family,” Trevino said. “We love all those old-time foods, the things our family made and love. We love what they loved.” 

“’Decolonize’ can sometimes mean only a time before colonization,” Medina said, “but we are trying to think of it as a continuum. If our family intentionally absorbed things into the culture, then every time is valid and has a place.” 

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Anna Mindess is a freelance writer and sign language interpreter who lives in Berkeley.