Food & Drink » Restaurant Review

Cafe Ohlone by mak-'amham

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On the Sunday afternoon Cafe Ohlone opened in 2018, a line of eager and attentive people packed onto the patio at University Press Books. While the co-founders Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino led the group in a blessing before serving their dishes, a television crew from Los Angeles filmed the proceedings. Although many of us were bottlenecked at the back entrance, straining to hear the ceremony, we shared the same feeling. The first Ohlone cafe in existence wasn't just overdue or hotly in demand, it was fulfilling the owners' shared mission to bring "Indigenous food sovereignty back to the East Bay."

Less than two years later—this summer—the bookstore closed, and along with it, the brick-and-mortar space housing Cafe Ohlone. In the interim, Trevino and Medina haven't been idle. They've taken time to consider what a new incarnation of the cafe might look like. Although the new location has yet to be determined, they envision a community center with the cafe still functioning as a central part of the operation. We spoke on the phone in October, as the couple, who are also business partners, prepared meal kits for the first time since the pandemic started. By the end of November, they're planning to make meal kits available once a month to the public.

"These are super intentional, curated, wooden cedar boxes," Medina said. Each one is going to be the equivalent of a meal they served at Cafe Ohlone. Items such as venison or local shellfish will come with instructions for home preparation. They're also gathering ingredients for alchemized teas, native greens for salads along with seasonal mushrooms, fiddleheads and onions—and a "decadent dessert course."

Since they won't be presiding over the meals with their customers, Medina and Trevino will also provide some of the cultural context for the dishes online. "We'll be interpreting the foods, where we source things," Medina says. "We also plan to have community voices so they can hear from our elders." They're making playlists with contemporary, indigenous music and jazz. Music that they played at the cafe. Medina adds that returning to cooking is a way to renew their relationships with distributors. "A lot of local Native people that we work with; for certain foods that we're not able to gather ourselves."

The menu itself is made up of either family memories from older generations or from archives the community recorded in the 1920s and 1930s. Medina says, "In those old archives, they'll talk about how delicious the food is and how much they miss eating it." Medina says they found ways to gather and prepare those traditional foods "in a way that's not detrimental to the land we come from." But they also wanted to find a way to incorporate modern flavors into the dishes.

As an example of the Old World meeting the New, Medina mentions Trevino's gluten-free oak acorn flour brownies. Chocolate wasn't here in California 200 years ago but was introduced and accepted into Ohlone cuisine. By combining the unfamiliar taste of acorn flour with chocolate (which they order from an indigenous community in Oaxaca, Mexico), "the brownies are a way to incorporate that taste of the acorn in a more readily available package to young people," he says. Medina adds, "We want people to know that everything we cook, our primary ingredients are always things that would be recognizable to our ancestors from before colonization."

Growing up in the East Bay, Medina remembers eating out with friends from a variety of diverse backgrounds. Hanging out with them, he tried pho and spanakopita. "You walked away from those experiences feeling like you understood that culture a little bit more than when you walked in," he says. It felt sad to him that his people didn't have similar spaces to celebrate their culture. What made it worse was knowing that their traditional foods had been suppressed.

"This is our country," Trevino says. "This is where our people have always lived since our beginning times. Even if it's occupied, it's still our place." Serving Ohlone food at the cafe opened up "avenues of understanding," but he says, "it's something that we know our community has long needed as well."

Cafe Ohlone is available for talks and discussions to help better understand Ohlone culture. makamham.com/cafeohlone.