Back in the before times prior to the pandemic, Cafe Ohlone made its mark with the communal dinners it served on the back patio of Berkeley’s University Press Books — long, unhurried meals accompanied by Powerpoint presentations and rich discussion of the history of the indigenous people in the East Bay. It was the only place in the world where the general dining public could experience such a meal.
Takeout was never part of the equation. But when Cafe Ohlone lost its Berkeley storefront this past summer, founders Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino vowed that the world’s only Ohlone restaurant would come back stronger than ever on the other side of this pandemic. Now, the restaurant takes its first step toward reaching that goal, releasing its first ever takeout box — a 12- by 12-inch cedar crate filled to the brim with traditional Ohlone ingredients, many of them hand-gathered from the East Bay’s forests and marshes: elderberries, wild onions, rooreh (or Indian lettuce), tea-soaked quail eggs, and jars of acorn soup.
Taken all together, the meal kit includes everything needed to prepare a multi-course Ohlone feast at home — even down to a curated playlist of music enjoyed by members of the Ohlone community.
Even in this time of unprecedented variety in terms of take-home dining options, there isn’t another takeout box quite like it. The “Sunday Supper from Cafe Ohlone,” will be available for pickup in Oakland once a month, with the first set of meals available to the public — a limited quantity of around 60 boxes — slated for early December. Each box, meant to feed two people, will cost $300 (roughly the same price per person as Cafe Ohlone’s in-person dinners). Pre-ordering will start in early November, about a month in advance.
Initially, Medina says, Cafe Ohlone had wanted to start the takeout program in September, but the process of securing a commercial kitchen space and ironing out all of the details took longer than expected. In the end, the important thing was for every individual component to be meaningful and right — not just the food itself, but also the lovely, fragrant cedar crates supplied by Bay Area Redwood; the candle, included to help capture some of the in-person Cafe Ohlone ambiance; the password to access prerecorded video messages from folks within the Ohlone community; and the aforementioned customized playlist, put together after many conversations with elders in the community. “It makes us really happy knowing that our grandparents have such good taste,” Medina says.
The meal itself will be a mix of prepared dishes and raw ingredients. While the exact contents will vary according to the season, each one is meant to be a “sensory experience,” Medina says, starting with “a layer of the fragrant herbs that we gather to remind people of the connections to the land and to these foods and our culture, and the places we come from.”
There will also be rose hip or black sage tea, locally gathered fruits and greens for making an Ohlone salad, potatoes cooked in duck fat with Indian onions, and either acorn soup or acorn bread. The amuse bouche might consist of a bay nut truffle or a quail egg served with smoked salmon roe. The main course will either be venison backstrap or local mussels and clams with pickleweed and California seaweed, all packed raw with detailed cooking instructions. And Medina promises that the dessert course, starting with Trevino’s acorn brownies, will be truly decadent.
Cafe Ohlone will roll out the new takeout program in three stages. In early November, they’ll sell a first set of boxes as a kind of test run, exclusive to the residents of Ladera, a small census-designated community on the Peninsula. Then, later in the month, another set will be made available to ticket holders to the restaurant’s last in-person dinner, which had been canceled because of COVID.
Finally, starting in early December, the meals will be available for pickup one Sunday a month at a new commissary kitchen space in Old Oakland, where Medina and Trevino will prepare and box up the take-home meals. Again, the takeout boxes will only be available in extremely limited quantities, in part because of the time that goes into putting each one together, and also because of the scarcity of some of the featured ingredients — the items made with acorn flour, for instance.
“These ingredients are not meant to be commodified,” Medina says. “60 is the most we can do comfortably without causing stress to the land.”
Meanwhile, Medina and Trevino have also been busy making plans for a new permanent restaurant space for Cafe Ohlone, which they’ve said will be much larger and more ambitious than the pop-up iteration. For now, they’re exploring various socially conscious means of raising capital — including being one of the BIPOC artist beneficiaries of a $250,000 investment by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
“We want to make sure there aren’t strings attached,” Medina says. “So these routes that we’re going on are slow and cautious.”