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A Visit to Café Ohlone, the Behind-a-Bookstore Restaurant Serving Indigenous Cuisine

By Shanthi Sekaran

02.12.20

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Seasonal menus at Café Ohlone are based on historical accounts and recipes from living elders.

Photo by Jason Henry

Seasonal menus at Café Ohlone are based on historical accounts and recipes from living elders.

The Berkeley cafe offers the true food of the East Bay—the original California cuisine.

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Berkeley, California, is a jumble of its many lives. It started as a college town that grew into a hippie town, and it has been a center of political protest and cultural expansion since the 1960s. Today, it’s also an epicurean paradise, a bastion of legendary restaurants, coffee shops, and bookstores. It’s a living paradox—its hills crammed with million-dollar homes and its sidewalks dotted with encampments of the unhoused. Yet through all the city’s phases and contradictions, one constant has remained: Berkeley is Ohlone territory.

The Ohlone, the original people of the East Bay, once numbered in the ten thousands, living in micro-states that spread from the Bay Area to Big Sur. They thrived along the California coast, gathering food from fertile marshlands and fishing rivers rich with salmon. They didn’t just benefit from the region’s abundance; for centuries, they made it happen, managing controlled burns and prompting regeneration, shaping their cooking practices to the rhythms of the land. But by 1852, colonization had nearly wiped out the tribe, and only 1,000 Ohlone remained.

In the decades following, the surviving Ohlone continued to live and work on California’s rancherias. They kept a low profile, understandably, given the seemingly endless onslaught. They stayed so successfully off the radar, in fact, that the tribe was declared extinct in the 1920s, their tribal designation struck from the federal register. Today’s population hovers around 5,000, with 800 living the Bay Area, but officially, the Ohlone no longer exist.

Vincent Medina, 33, and Louis Trevino, 28, beg to differ. “My family has lived here forever,” says Medina, who grew up in San Lorenzo and San Leandro, near the same creeks his ancestors once fished. “It’s where most of us still live today. It’s where I’m from.”

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In 2018, the couple—partners in both work and life—cofounded mak-‘amham, an organization devoted to preserving Ohlone cuisine and raising mainstream awareness of their culture. Mak-‘amham also works closely with the Ohlone community, planning gathering trips where Medina, Trevino, and their fellow tribe members learn about harvesting and using traditional plants. At community cooking events, they learn how to process and prepare gathered foods. Topping it off are formal community meals, a chance for tribe members to honor their elders and their ancestors, and experience full traditional meals, free of charge and away from the public gaze.

In September 2018, Trevino and Medina opened Café Ohlone, a restaurant tucked into the courtyard of University Press Books, just across the street from the UC Berkeley campus.

“We’re stripping away the layers imposed on our community to return to what was ours."

Café Ohlone’s central vision is to promote Ohlone cuisine in its original, decolonized form. “We’re stripping away the layers imposed on our community to return to what was ours,” says Medina. Eschewing ingredients brought by missionaries and colonizers, the menu eliminates dairy, gluten, pork, legumes, and alcohol, and focuses on traditional, precontact recipes. Aside from a few outsourced  accents, like vanilla and Zapotec chocolate, its ingredients are harvested almost exclusively from the East Bay. Even the salt is local—Trevino, Medina, and fellow tribe members gather it from the mouth of San Lorenzo Creek, where Medina’s family has always found their salt.

To plan seasonal menus, the pair dug into historical accounts, recorded by linguists and anthropologists in the 1920s and ’30s, in which tribal elders detailed the culinary methods passed down through generations. They also learned from their living elders. Though they haven’t trained formally, both Trevino and Medina come from families with deep and continuous culinary traditions, and have been “training” with parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles since childhood. For 50 years, Trevino’s great-grandparents owned a family restaurant in Southern California, run entirely by relatives. It was there that he learned his great-grandmother’s long, slow cooking methods, her ways with sauces and seasoning.

Louis Trevino and Vincent Medina co-founded mak-'amham in 2018.

When Café Ohlone opened two years ago, word spread fast. The San Francisco Chronicle listed Trevino and Medina among its “Rising Star Chefs of 2019” and the New York Times called its dinner menu “a victory.” Diners pack the communal tables at every meal—its Thursday lunch tastings, semi-monthly evening tea hours, and monthly dinners and brunches.

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On a near-freezing afternoon in January, I made my way to the café, and found a crowd already waiting and ready to brave the outdoor seating. (Seating is exclusively outdoors, unless spillover moves diners to an inner room of the bookstore.) At precisely one o’clock, Medina welcomed us onto a trellised patio, its long communal tables overhung with vines, a secret idyll from the bustle of Bancroft Avenue.

Medina began with a short, lively introduction to Café Ohlone and its vision, his speech peppered with phrases in Chochenyo, the language of the East Bay Ohlone. (Mak-‘amham, for example, means “our  food.”) He followed with a prayer of gratitude in both Chochenyo and English, before walking us through the jam-packed lunch menu, fixed at $35 per person. The meal is served buffet-style, and if you’re a diner of a certain age, you’re in luck: In keeping with Ohlone tradition, elders are served first.

Trevino, the café’s head chef, lets his partner do most of the talking, but his food is bold with color and texture. The pair are often joined by Alicia Adams-Potts, the in-house acorn specialist they affectionately call “tanna,” or big sister. (Adams-Potts is also Ohlone.) All three stood behind the counter to fill lunch plates, making small talk with diners.

With everyone seated and ready to eat, Medina asked us to study our heaped plates. “Our food,” he says, “looks like the land.”

The day's salad was made of cress, sorrel, and pickleweed gathered from the bay shoreline, and sprinkled with dried strawberries (preserved from a summer harvest), edible flowers, hazelnuts, and smoked walnut oil. The central protein was a hazelnut flour mushroom cake, accompanied by Turlock quail eggs, roasted pine nuts in the shell, and Russian banana fingerling potatoes—a modern sub-in for the traditional Brodeo potato, which is no bigger than a thumbtack and hard to source these days. (“Faux-deos,” Medina calls the fingerlings.) Dessert: a chia porridge topped with chunks of prickly pear, and a salted chia-flour brownie, made with Zapotec chocolate from southern Mexico, one of the few nonlocal ingredients. “’Ammamak!” Medina called. Let’s eat.

At some point, what began as lunch in a café started to feel more like sitting down with a good friend’s family. By the end of the two-hour meal, I’d forgotten about the cold. Maybe it was the company of people around me, maybe it was the food, or maybe it was the serape, provided by the café, spread across my lap. I was warmed from the inside. As Medina says, “Decolonization is a delicious thing.”

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