The Ohlone people inhabited the area along the coast from San Francisco Bay through Monterey Bay to the lower Salinas Valley, long before Spanish colonialism or Manifest Destiny came to California. Today, many institutions are reclaiming the Ohlone culture’s rightful place in their homeland, including this unique new lunch spot in Berkeley.
Setting the Scene
The Ohlone Cafe is located in the back of the University Press bookstore—the waiting area to get in is literally among the stacks. Compared to the hectic college town surrounding UC Berkeley, this bookstore is a sanctuary of well-loved literature. During my visit, everyone gathered around a large wooden table embellished with a textile rug, at least twenty minutes before opening, with buzzing anticipation and warm chatter.
“They always attract a big crowd. They just seem to have a great time,” someone exclaimed It seemed like most of the crowd was composed of veteran diners, no doubt on their second or third visit to experience this unique culinary performance.
Even I, a first-timer, was personally greeted by the owner and co-founder Vincent Medina, who apologized for the wait. Since it had just rained, there was a slight delay, but no one seemed to mind. Cafe Ohlone offers weekly tea, lunch, and dinner samplings on the back patio of the bookstore. The hearty lunch course, which I had chosen to attend, was just $20. Though they normally operate by reservation only, lunch is always open to the public on a first-come-first-serve basis.
A Resplendent Introduction
When it was finally time, twenty or so of us fit snugly around a long table salvaged from a local tree. Each chair came with a hand-woven blanket in case anyone got chilly. The table was decorated with acorns, one of the Ohlone staples, and shimmering seashells with tea-lights flickering inside. This was to remind us that everything served was sourced and gathered from the native land.
Before the feast began, Medina, a member of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, delivered a passionate speech about the beginnings of the Ohlone people and how they have carried on through the years, keeping their food-related traditions alive. He highlighted the importance of seasonal, wholesome flora and fauna to his culture. The emotion behind his words was only intensified when realizing that he recites this speech at least three times per week, and who knows how he tailors it for each individual course.
I mentioned this later as he ladled some acorn soup onto my plate, and he chuckled, saying, “Well, it’s easy because it all comes from the heart.”
Following this grand speech, he recited a brief prayer in his native tongue of Chochenyo, followed by a prayer from fellow co-founder Louis Trevino, who spoke in Rumsen. Vincent then told us the meaning of the prayer, because obviously none of us understood a word, which is kind of the point of this pop-up style eatery. From the moment you walk outside, you are swarmed with cultural artifacts you probably don’t understand. But instead of making you feel bad about it, these two choose to educate and inform.
“It empowers us to look at these old foods through an indigenous lens—by understanding these are the same foods our people have always eaten, and when we use language to celebrate these foods, to pray for them, to conserve over them, we are brought closer to our Ohlone ways and our family is collectively strengthened,” Trevino said. So as much as this is a learning experience for diners, it is also a way of connection and revitalization for Medina and Trevino.
The Innovative Menu
And now for the food. Vincent started by mentioning, “No meal is proper without acorn, just like how corn/rice/wheat are staples for other cultures.” Most everything served had these robust nuts incorporated (meaning no gluten, for those that are intolerant). The meal incorporated both traditional and modern approaches to Ohlone cooking, giving us a glimpse into how the tribe has remained true to their roots, while adapting to the ever-changing world around them.
First, there was an Ohlone salad, named as such for including of all the ingredients Medina’s predecessors enjoyed. The dish was highlighted by watercress, blackberries, roasted hazelnuts, salt gathered by the tribe from the eastern shores of San Francisco, and a tart dressing composed of blackberries, bay laurel oil, and walnut oil. Next, hazelnut flour muffins baked with yellow foot mushrooms, black trumpet mushrooms, and hedgehog muffins made their debut. They paired wonderfully when dipped in the acorn soup. It reminded me of a much heartier, and healthier, version of biscuits and gravy.
Finally, to cleanse the palate, there was a chia seed pudding topped with freshly ground hazelnuts, salt, and a blackberry and bay laurel sauce. Chia seed is one of the most nutritious foods available, full of fats, protein, and carbohydrates to prepare one for endurance trials. Vincent explained that the people of his tribe would have to run long distances just to deliver a message, so before setting off on their journey, they’d chug a chia seed beverage.
By this point, everyone was oo-ing and ah-ing, fidgeting in their chairs to line up for a taste. But not so fast, because in the Ohlone culture, respect for the elders is very important. Everyone that wanted to self-identify as an “elder” went first. Then, one by one, we grabbed a plate to be served by Vincent and Louis. During this process, there was an exchange of brief introductions, a welcome back, or a continuation of a conversation that took place during a previous encounter. It was a very peaceful process of meaningful connectivity.
The entire discussion that took place before the meal stressed how these foods should be cherished and appreciated for their ability to revitalize and nourish the body. This was one meal where I fed my mind before licking my plate clean.
A Different Kind of Fullness
Usually, and especially in the Bay Area, these culture-focused pop-ups are treated more as a novelty; everyone is on their phone, snapping Instagram-worthy shots, while not really paying attention to the food they are eating, leaving their plates practically untouched. But Cafe Ohlone serves as a brief look into the lens of a native Bay Area resident. What is dished out makes you want to be present and engaged. The actual food is only a small part of the journey through such an important part of the areas’ history and culture.
So, naturally, there was no artificial glow in sight. Everyone was attentive; looking to satisfy more than their hunger. Walking away from the experience with the contentment of a full belly, I felt more mindful of the ground I walk on, the foods I choose to nourish myself with, and the importance of gratitude. I understood why people keep going back for more.
As said in their native tongue, “'ammamak 'oyyo!” “Let's eat, again!”
What makes a great bike lane? How do activists push to get one built? And what happens to ridership after you build it? Join us to tackle all these questions with People Protected Bike Lanes co-founder Matt Brezina at our upcoming BeaconTalk event.