In June, one of Berkeley’s more idiosyncratic bookstores, University Press Books, closed its doors permanently due to the financial pressures associated with the coronavirus pandemic. For Bay Area food enthusiasts, however, the store’s shuttering represented more than just the loss of hard-to-find academic titles: It also meant that Cafe Ohlone, the world’s only restaurant dedicated to the cuisine of Northern California’s indigenous Ohlone people, had lost its home.
For a little less than two years, Cafe Ohlone had set up shop on the bookstore’s sunny back patio, hosting weekly tastings and more elaborate dinners a couple of times a month. Dishes were made exclusively with pre-colonial ingredients, often hand-gathered by co-founders Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino: cold, creamy acorn soup; venison meatballs; and extravagantly colorful salads dressed with walnut oil and blackberry sauce. All of those meals were on pause, as the cafe had stayed closed entirely for the duration of the coronavirus crisis. Now, it’s unclear when and where guests will once again be able to sit down to enjoy an Ohlone feast.
According to Medina, one thing is certain: This will not be the end of Cafe Ohlone. In fact, he and Trevino are working to put together the cafe’s first takeout offering. It will be a meal kit of sorts: a monthly, curated box of traditional Ohlone ingredients and dishes that they hope to make available to the public later this summer.
“We were disappointed when we heard the bookstore was closing,” Medina tells Eater SF. “But what we built with Cafe Ohlone is something that’s going to last and carry on and really transcend any one space.”
The first step will finding a commercial kitchen where they can operate their new takeout business, which Medina hopes to launch in late August or early September. The idea, he says, will be to put everything a customer needs to recreate the Cafe Ohlone at home. So, each “crafted box” will contain a seasonal cross-section of the ingredients he and Trevino gather for use at the restaurant: fragrant herbs like yerba buena and California lilac, jars of rose hips (for brewing tea) and walnut oil, and, perhaps, fresh clams or mussels on ice. There might also be cuts of venison backstrap, ready to be grilled, and the components of an Ohlone salad — roasted hazelnuts, perhaps, and an assortment of berries and indigenous greens.
There might even be a digital component to the box. Since Medina and Trevino normally spend so much time introducing each meal at the cafe, talking about the cultural significance of different ingredients, they’re thinking about posting a password-protected version of that on Vimeo each month, perhaps featuring local Ohlone elders — as one more way to “show our community, who we are, and what we look like,” Medina says.
The boxes will be available in limited quantities — maybe just 60 of them a month, priced roughly the same as the cost of a ticketed sit-down dinner at the cafe, which tended to sell for about $100. They will, after all, be just as much work to put together, Medina says. And each box will come with detailed instructions about how to cook and assemble each dish. “We’ll even write it in English too,” Medina quips. One of the chefs’ missions is to celebrate and spread knowledge of Chochenyo (one of the Ohlone languages), after all.
Once Medina and Trevino have established their new takeout operation, the next step will be to find a new location for the physical restaurant. In many ways, Medina says, the Berkeley bookstore’s back patio was the ideal space for a restaurant with Cafe Ohlone’s particular mission. It was outdoors, which evoked a sense of the old village life for the cafe’s founders, as well as the Ohlone elders who visited. Medina and Trevino had put thought into every detail: the abundance of native Californian plants, the long communal table made of reclaimed redwood, the different ways the space was laid out to feel as much like an educational center as a restaurant. And the location’s proximity to UC Berkeley meant that there were opportunities to collaborate with the university, particularly the linguistics department, spreading more awareness of the Ohlone people and their culture.
The hope is that the new space will have a lot of those same features — an outdoor component and a location somewhere in the East Bay, which is the Ohlone people’s homeland. But the cafe’s founders also want the new Cafe Ohlone to be much “larger and bolder” — big enough to function as a community center and a cultural space. Medina imagines it as a place where tribal council meetings could be held, as well as classes on Chochenyo and traditional basket weaving, and where Ohlone youths would “feel comfortable and safe.”
All of that cultural work is central to the restaurant’s central mission, which is to remind everyone that the Ohlones are a living, vibrant culture: They’re still eating their traditional foods; their language hasn’t been forgotten. It’s the work Medina and Trevino have focused on during the shelter in place, holding Chochenyo language lessons and cooking classes with Ohlone community members over Zoom.
The two founders say they would be open to a new cafe location in Berkeley, where they’ve established many connections, but they’re also looking in the southern part of Alameda County, where much of the Ohlone community resides — the old Niles section of Fremont, where many Ohlone elders once lived, is of particular interest. Given that the old Cafe Ohlone would likely have remained closed until a COVID-19 vaccine was available, Medina says they plan on taking their time to fundraise and to find a new site.
The earliest the new cafe could open would be sometime in 2021. But Medina says he doesn’t have any doubt that it will reopen: “The work is too important to go back to thinking of a time when there wasn’t an Ohlone restaurant.”