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A New Cafe in Berkeley Serves California's Original Cuisine

The first Ohlone restaurant in the Bay Area is a celebration of indigenous, precolonial ingredients—and a living culture.

SLIDESHOW

A tasting plate at one of Café Ohlone’s preview pop-ups, highlighted by a bowl of venison stew.

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Cofounders Louis Trevino (left) and Vincent Medina.

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The café’s open-air patio space in Berkeley.

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Salt gathered from San Francisco Bay..

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A salad of local greens, berries, and nuts.

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Educating diners on the original language spoken by East Bay Ohlones.

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If you went to grade school in the Bay Area, you probably spent the better part of a year learning about the Ohlone people—about their folklore, the houses they built out of tule reeds, and perhaps how their land was stolen away by white settlers. What might have got lost, however, is that the Ohlones are a living, breathing community—and, more to the point, the creators of delicious foods that present-day diners will enjoy eating.

That was the omission that Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino, Ohlone community activists based in the East Bay, set about correcting when they started a series of pop-ups last summer, hosting Ohlone meals at various locations around the Bay Area. They called the fledgling operation Mak-’amham: “our food” in Chochenyo, the language spoken by East Bay Ohlones. Now Medina and Trevino are ready to turn the project into a permanent restaurant, albeit a tiny one, housed in the open-air patio behind University Press Books, near the UC Berkeley campus. When Café Ohlone starts its regular hours in early 2019, it will be the first restaurant of its kind in the Bay Area—the only place where diners can enjoy acorn bread, venison stew, and other traditional Ohlone dishes while sipping teas made with local herbs such as yerba buena and black sage.

For now, the café is hosting weekly pop-ups to give eager customers a preview of things to come. During one October session, the $20 tasting menu included cold acorn soup—velvety smooth and surprisingly refreshing—and a spongy, squishy bread made from chia seeds. There were hazelnuts served two ways: roasted and sprinkled with salt from San Francisco Bay, and ground into a luxurious peanut butter–like paste. There was a salad of indigenous local greens, huckleberries, and assorted nuts, served with a dressing made from walnut oil and blackberry juice. There were meatball-like ground-venison patties, a sweet sauce made with blackberries and purple yerba buena, and boiled quail eggs still in their speckled shells. In keeping with the custom of the Ohlones’ ancestors, everything was served together on a single plate. “We didn’t have a dessert course in those days,” Medina explains.

In almost every respect, Café Ohlone isn’t really meant to be a conventional restaurant. The fact that the food is seasonal and local, and meant to be eaten slowly, might seem like par for the course here in Alice Waters country. But Medina and Trevino take things a step further by only using the precolonial ingredients that their Ohlone forebears had access to—no wheat flours or processed sugars, no meats or vegetables that aren’t native to this particular stretch of the Bay Area. Many of the ingredients for the October pop-up were gathered by hand: salt from the bay; purple yerba buena from Halkin, the name Ohlones use for a portion of the East Bay encompassing San Leandro and parts of Oakland; and valley acorns from Saklan, the area north of the Berkeley Hills. Then, of course, there’s the restaurant’s deep educational and activist emphasis—the way, as Medina says, that every single aspect of the place is meant to speak to Ohlone values and sovereignty.

Growing up in the multicultural Bay Area—in San Leandro, mostly—Medina always knew that the elders in his community were proud of their Ohlone identity, he says, but many aspects of the culture had largely been erased by more than two centuries of forced assimilation. Chochenyo was no longer spoken in day-to-day life, and the traditional Ohlone foods that predated the Spanish missions had all but disappeared. “There were all kinds of restaurants that my friends would go to when they wanted to showcase their culture or where they came from,” Medina says. “But we didn’t have anything like that.”

Indeed, both Medina and Trevino (whose family lived in Carmel Valley) say that, owing to the effects of colonialism, most of the food that their parents and grandparents made at home was more or less an offshoot of Mexican cuisine. But Medina and Trevino were always curious about their people’s traditional foods, and when the two men were in their early 20s, before they even met, they both started to deepen their research, delving into regional archives that included hours upon hours of interviews that anthropologists had transcribed that contained detailed information about, and even specific recipes for, those foods.

Both men cite the strong, minty flavor of a cup of freshly brewed yerba buena tea as a breakthrough—the moment they knew they were tasting something that their ancestors would have enjoyed. There was this profound sense of connection, Trevino says, in “knowing that it was loved so much and being able to taste exactly that.”

In many ways, the whole point of Café Ohlone is to give guests, both native and non-native, exactly that kind of experience—and, in doing so, to help revitalize age-old cultural practices. Previously, Medina worked as a curator at San Francisco’s Mission Dolores, where he told the Ohlone side of the Spanish missions story—testifying to his people’s survival in the face of decades of suffering and violent abuse—mostly to groups of non-native schoolchildren. He found himself longing for a way to more tangibly revive his people’s culture.

As much as they talk about honoring tradition, Medina and Trevino say they want to avoid presenting a vision of Ohlone culture that’s locked in the past, like a time capsule. That’s why they serve modern dishes, too, such as acorn brownies or sage leaves fried crisp with a hazelnut-flour batter—foods, they say, that may not have existed in the old days but whose flavors and textures their ancestors would have recognized. It’s why they sometimes add hazelnut milk to their acorn soup, to thin it out and make it sweeter and creamier.

To prepare that soup, Medina says, it takes members of the local Ohlone community about a day’s worth of collective effort just to gather enough acorns to produce some 50 pounds’ worth of flour. The flour is dried and then leached with water until it loses its bitterness, so you’re left with something sweet and nutty, with nuances of flavor specific to each variety of oak: blue, black, tan, or valley. The finished soup, Medina says, is equally delicious when served with smoked salmon and bitter greens or as an accompaniment to roast venison. “This is a food that goes back to the beginning, to our creation time,” Trevino says. “We were taught to make it by our creator.” 2430 Bancroft Way (near Dana St.), Berkeley

 

 

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco 

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