The city of Berkeley is home to Chez Panisse, the Alice Waters restaurant widely credited with spreading the gospel of sourcing and celebrating local, sustainable ingredients. But the most profound example of this philosophy can be found just a few minutes away, where foods local to the Bay Area are made and served by the people who first lived there.
Cafe Ohlone is a remarkable achievement, the resurrection of the cuisine of local Native Americans by two members of the Ohlone tribe whose ancestors hunted and gathered in the area centuries ago. Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino met at a 2014 conference on native languages, and bonded while listening to phonograph records of tribal-elder interviews from the 1930s. They were struck by the detailed information on culinary techniques, which were disappearing. Their ancestors explained which plants to gather, which fish to catch, and the rituals of making the old dishes. They listened, learned, and then re-created the techniques.
After a few years of perfecting the recipes with other tribal members, Medina and Trevino decided to share the experience with the wider community. In September of 2018, Cafe Ohlone’s staff served their first lunch on a patio behind Berkeley’s University Press Books, an academic bookstore.
Unlike other local cafes, it is no grab-and-go stop for students hurrying between classes. The experience begins with a solemn prayer in the Chochenyo language and a brief explanation of the history of the native peoples of the East Bay Area, from pre-contact to the present day. It’s a tale of a people who determinedly preserved their language and culture despite indifference and persecution from successive Spanish, Mexican, and American governments.
At each meal, Medina and Trevino introduce each of the dishes, which are based on wild ingredients gathered locally by native people. The menu is seasonal, but a typical spring meal includes a salad of watercress with sorrel leaves, blackberries, gooseberries, and popped amaranth seeds. The cress has a mildly peppery herbal flavor that mixes well with the citrusy sorrel and tart berries, and the amaranth adds a satisfying crunch and slight nuttiness. No matter the season, expect multiple courses and refreshment from tea rather than alcohol—often an older family member’s longtime recipe, and always a local herb. Any meal’s flavors will be a true expression of Californian terroir.
Meals may conclude with songs, a fast-moving round of an ancient gambling game, or simply time for questions. Cafe Ohlone’s combination of delicious, unique food with a history and anthropology lesson has proved popular, though the difficulties of sourcing wild foods limit how often they can open. Now offering midweek lunches, tea tastings, Sunday brunch, and occasional Saturday dinners, Cafe Ohlone provides an opportunity to savor the first California cuisine and meet the people who brought it back to life.
Update: The cafe closed its original location behind the bookstore on Bancroft Way, but will be reopening in late July 2022 in a new space just up the block, on the patio of the Phoebe Hearst Museum at the UC Berkeley campus.
Know Before You Go
Cafe Ohlone will reopen in summer 2022, at the corner of Bancroft Way and College Ave (across the street from Cafe Strada). For more detailed information on the reopening, their website is makamham.com.