The newest iteration of groundbreaking Indigenous restaurant Cafe Ohlone opened September 1 at the Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, which is located on unceded Ohlone territory. The pairing between the museum and Cafe Ohlone initially “felt extremely fraught” co-owner Vincent Medina told KQED last year, given the history between the Ohlone people and the Hearst family and the museum’s former director — whose research caused the tribe to lose federal recognition. Still, Cafe Ohlone moved into the space with a focus on ‘oṭṭoy, which means to repair. “It’s a particular focus that we have: to work to develop better relationships with the university, to be able to see healing take place with our Ohlone community and the university,” Medina says. “To be able to create a new path forward.”
Watching the space come together “feels historic and meaningful and rich on its own,” he says. As an East Bay Ohlone, he didn’t grow up seeing his culture reflected outside of his family, who he says experienced racism against the Ohlone people during the 1950s and ‘60s. While Ohlone culture was shared within Ohlone homes and as elders continued to advocate for protecting heritage spaces and sacred sites, seeing Ohlone culture becoming more visible to those outside the community has been meaningful. “We really want to center the older generation of our family because they make all these conditions possible,” Medina says. “Now people at least have an understanding and a willingness to be able to want to learn more.”
The restaurant won’t follow a traditional service format, but there will be a number of reservation-only meals available weekly, including a tea service, lunch, brunch, and dinner. At the opening day lunch, bird chirps echoed through the dining area, welcoming diners into the space. The menu will be extremely seasonal, with constantly changing and rotating dishes meant to reflect “what we eat at home,” Medina says. But read on for a sample of what you might expect.
The lunch meal begins with a huge Ohlone Salad made of greens, fruits, nuts, and seeds traditional to the East Bay Ohlone; it will be a staple of all of Cafe Ohlone’s meals, to reflect what’s growing in the local, native landscape as well as ingredients specific to Medina and fellow co-owner Louis Trevino’s family memories. In this early September version, the salad is made of a watercress base and includes sorrel; the cucumber-apple flavor of purslane; and pickleweed, which grows in the marshes of the East Bay and brings a salty, briny bite to the dish.
Fruit punctuates the greens, including gooseberries, which are growing in abundance, plus currants, blackberries, and “intensely sweet” tiny California native strawberries. Pinyon nuts stand in for rarer black walnuts, which are native to the Bay Area, while roasted California hazelnuts are also thrown in alongside amaranth seeds and edible flowers. The salad is dressed in a coulis of cooked down blackberries with ground vanilla bean and a hint of agave for sweetness, with an herbal note of bay laurel and smoked walnut oil.
Everything at Cafe Ohlone is infused with significance, even if that importance isn’t immediately apparent to diners, and next comes a plate packed with meaning for Medina and Trevino. The main entree is hammuy, or cold-smoked trout, which Medina says sparks memories of sourcing the fish from Alameda Creek and other Bay Area waterways. The trout is often smoked or seared and grilled, and the plan is to feature that fish whenever it becomes available — though there won’t be meat on every lunch menu due to sustainability concerns, Trevino says. “We want to make sure that when we can bring in meat, we’re doing so in a very responsible way,” he says.
Warépmin and salkiič sii
A mound of caramelized oyster mushrooms accompany the fish, roasted with sunflower oil and tarragon — another dish Medina and Trevino say they grew up eating. The bowl of watercress soup, or salkiič sii, is also special to family elders, great-grandparents who Medina says would gather heirloom brodia potatoes for the dish. These days those potatoes aren’t readily available due to the privatization of land and issues with growing brodia; instead, the Russian fingerling banana potato is substituted for being close in taste. “We do that as a way to bring in that flavor and still educate people about why these foods are not so available, but then also our hopes to have them again in the future,” Medina says.
The soft-boiled quail eggs are significant to the local Ohlone culture and were once regularly gathered around the East Bay, particularly Alameda where Medina says quail eggs were abundant. Here, the eggs are cooked until the yolk is a bit waxy, he says, and meant to be sprinkled with East Bay salt, made for generations by their ancestors from the marshes of the East Bay shoreline. These days, the quail eggs are sustainably sourced from a Central Valley quail farm.
Trevino says the ability to serve quail eggs has been exciting for Ohlone elders. “To people who are unfamiliar with our California quail, they might just see it as a soft-boiled egg and it might seem sort of deceptively simple,” he says. “We’ve heard many times now from elders who are excited to have it with food that they hadn’t had since they were young people — and then they’ll just start stuffing quail eggs into their cardigan pockets.”
Chia seed flour brownies made with unsweetened chocolate and black walnuts may seem like an unusual inclusion, yet make perfect sense after hearing their origin story from Medina and Trevino. The dessert evolved from a family gathering; they were showing the acorn as a staple food, explaining how it’s regarded “as a source of life” but has become less familiar to younger generations. They prepared a more traditional acorn soup and bread, but also created this brownie with the intention of later phasing the sweet out. Instead, elders insisted they keep them, Trevino says. “It was just a really beautiful reminder, as we say, that you don’t have to exclude contemporary and lived experiences in order to have traditional,” he says.
Throughout the meal, Trevino preps dishes with staff while Medina speaks to diners about the food and shares family history. They call Cafe Ohlone a “love song to Ohlone culture.” It’s a contemporary space under Ohlone stewardship “that shows vibrancy and abundance and life that’s being respected,” Medina says. They want diners to hear their story directly from them: about the beauty and value of the Ohlone culture, people who lived lives full of meaning and dignity. “We want people to walk away with a greater understanding of the culture than when they walked into that space, to walk away knowing these inherent truths that Ohlone people are here today, that we’ve always been in the East Bay, that the culture is living,” Medina says. “We want people to look at our culture from a lens of strength and triumphs, instead of losses and defeats.”
Cafe Ohlone (2430 Bancroft Way, Berkeley) debuted Thursday, September 1 and is open for lunch and tea service by reservation, with plans to expand to dinner and brunch in the upcoming months.