The Cafe Ohlone Transition, in its Founders’ Words

July 29, 2020

This is an excerpt from an email message sent on July 6 to supporters of mak-‘amham, the Cafe Ohlone. We are reposting it here with permission from the writers. Learn more and support mak-‘amham online at

horše ṭuuxi hemmenya—good day to you all,

We hope that this message finds each one of you well and safe in this transformative time in which we find ourselves.

We write this message, after a long lull, to share with our friends and supporters how Cafe Ohlone is changing and transitioning, and to give an update of our plans moving forward for the future.

As many of you are aware, Cafe Ohlone closed preemptively on March 14th to stay safe and protect community from the spread of COVID-19. Our Ohlone community has a painful history with introduced disease, and wisdom from our history teaches us to take such threats seriously. We immediately thought of our Ohlone elders, their wisdom of how to respond to hardship and disease, but also our urgency to protect them. We also thought of those elders in every community, regardless of background, that came to Cafe Ohlone to dine around our communal redwood table in close quarters, and in early March, when we grasped how serious the virus was, we knew we had to be responsible so we closed temporarily. Our team believed at the time spread of COVID-19 might lessen after a few weeks if we all did our part, stayed home, and sacrificed that we would be able to open back again soon at our beautifully crafted Berkeley location at University Press Books.

Much has changed since the early days of this painful pandemic that has transformed all of our lives; although things around us have begun to open up, our team has steadfastly believed that it is too soon to begin any outward work for the risk that it brings to the collective. In June, we were also saddened to learn that University Press Books, which Cafe Ohlone’s terraced dining area was connected to, has permanently closed. Although the Musical Offering has remained open, whose kitchen we rented for our meals, Cafe Ohlone’s patio was connected to University Press Books, which means we will no longer be able to operate at 2430 Bancroft Avenue in Berkeley. We acknowledge the hard work and generosity of heart from the teams at University Press Books and Musical Offering for all they have done to keep these businesses vibrant, as well as the vision of Bill and Karen McClung, along with Jean Spencer, for making the back patio and kitchen accessible so Cafe Ohlone could soar.  We created something beautiful in that terraced back patio, as twinkling lights hung overhead, scents of flowering hummingbird sage filled the air, candles twinkled in abalone shells atop our East Bay redwood table, and diners wrapped themselves in serapes as our rich Ohlone cuisine overflowed onto plates. We have so much love for that space. However, Cafe Ohlone, and our deep community work through mak-’amham, is bigger than any one physical location; with the hope, visibility, and tangible change this work has created, we are certain that Cafe Ohlone will transcend.

Indeed, it must transcend. In less than two years, Cafe Ohlone has created a cultural space for our Ohlone community that we have lacked for far too long in our urban East Bay homeland; we introduced Ohlone cuisine to the public in our own words for the first time in generations and taught about how beautiful our culture is, and how deep and unbroken our roots are in this beloved place; we entered Ohlone cuisine in places we were unheard before, like The New York Times, and we were named a Top 100 Restaurant in the Bay Area by the San Francisco Chronicle. This work has allowed the public to understand Ohlone cuisine and culture in a new way, and by extension, to respect Ohlone people, land, and sacred spaces differently too. The change is tangible, and it’s necessary to continue to have meaningful, boundary-breaking conversations over seasonal Ohlone cuisine. We will continue.

As with everything, we’ve listened to that wisdom from our old timers, and we have found ways to adapt and transform our way of being.

While Cafe Ohlone has been closed, we have listened to the wisdom of our elders, who teach us to go inward to avoid spread and keep the community safe. This wisdom we are reminded of today is documented as a way of survival in archives recorded by Ohlone elders almost a century ago; it’s also passed down by our living elders whose parents were impacted by hardship with the Spanish flu. As with everything, we’ve listened to that wisdom from our old timers, and we have found ways to adapt and transform our way of being.

With our time at home, in the salt flats near San Lorenzo Creek, we have been engaged in a collective effort with fellow tribal members to keep the oldest culture of East Bay culture moving forward in new, modern ways. A culturally focused, multi-generational, multi-lineage effort from Muwekma Ohlone tribal members has established the ‘Virtual Verona Band,’ named after the precursor of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, the Verona Band of Alameda County. All our Muwekma Ohlone great-grandparents were a part of that older Tribe before tribal land was taken in Pleasanton; those elders over a hundred years ago in the Verona Band worked so hard to keep our culture and identity strong at a hard moment in our history, and they are a model for our community’s continued vibrancy. Every Thursday for the past two months, Muwekma Ohlone Tribal Members have come together for Chochenyo language class over Zoom to keep our language strong. Staying at home has affected us in other ways, too: we have learned how to teach Ohlone cooking classes from our kitchen that are livestreamed; we have jumped into ‘quarantine baking’ Ohlone style, sourdough bread, enriched with coast live oak acorn oil, after learning that the fermentation process of sourdough neutralizes some gluten; we are in the process of organizing socially distanced salt gathering trips; and Zoom dogbane cordage-making sessions are on the horizon. Ohlone elders are being well taken care of by younger generations, who make regular contactless visits to drop off foods and necessities, and Allies of Muwekma have started a COVID-19 Relief Fund for Muwekma tribal members. We have seen the old way of being spring into action—that wisdom from our elders to stay in and look after the community is alive and relevant as ever.

While we have been focused inward, we have received an outpouring of well-wishes and support. makkin ‘alšip—we are grateful to see our message spread during this more quiet time in the media, such as in an April Berkeleyside piece written by Anna Mindess about our preparation, or Luke Tsai’s article in Eater San Francisco, explaining why we stayed closed when some restaurants began to open. A recurring theme in messages we have received is a desire to experience Cafe Ohlone again soon. We started to think about how we could continue our work in a transformed world. How can we continue the intentionality and message of our meals while sharing seasonal Ohlone foods in a way similar to that experience around our redwood table? It is too early for us to open a physical restaurant space but the pandemic has allowed us to think in new ways. Our team started to think out of the box, and we decided to make the box literal.

Later this summer, we will begin a once-a-month carefully curated Cafe Ohlone dinner box that will bring the elegance, intention, and seasonality of our mur—Saturday night dinners—to the table in safety.

Imagine opening a box embossed with the Cafe Ohlone’s crow and quail logo to fragrant gathered Ohlone herbs, such as minty yerba buena, California rose, manzanita blossoms, artemisia, and California lilac. Underneath seasonal herbs is each component of a seasonal meal we might share at Cafe Ohlone under the stars, with some components that can be prepared at home, with adequate instructions. In these boxes, think of seeing dried rosehips and elderflower tea, with instructions of how to brew; fine cuts of chilled venison backstrap, with a serving of smoked walnut or hazelnut oil to cook to preference; all the complex components for an Ohlone salad separated, served with our blackberry and bay laurel sauce on the side; seasonal chanterelles, native onions, fiddleheads, wild strawberries, piñons Indian potatoes, sea lettuces as necessary seasonal components, packed as reminders of our abundant way of eating; tan oak acorn soup prepared by us in a traditional way to complete the meal; decadent Ohlone sweets such as a rosehip jam hazelnut flour torte, hazelnut milk chia porridge sweetened with candy cap mushrooms, and—always—Louis’ now-famous acorn flour and Bay salt brownies. All described, of course, is depending on availability of seasonal ingredients. To bring even more of the Cafe Ohlone atmosphere to the table, a candle will be included in each box, along with a curated, sharable playlist to add beauty to the meal. To keep the intentionality and focus on Ohlone culture, and to include our message in the meal, a password-protected Vimeo will be shared with each curated box that is made for the monthly meal, with the menu described in detail, along with community voices present to teach the public about our beautiful, living culture.

We are still planning these boxes, and their logistics, but we aim to begin this next stage of  Cafe Ohlone’s public work in late August or early September. We are in the process of searching for a commercial kitchen, and renewing sourcing of foods that we cannot gather responsibly; those on our e-mail list will be the first in the public to know when we will begin these meals. Guests who had March 14th and March 28th dinners delayed because of our early closure will be contacted by Dee, our administrator, as these meals come closer.

We intend to open Cafe Ohlone again as a physical restaurant, but now is not the time. Our work to share Ohlone cuisine and teach our truths is transforming with the times we are in, and our curated dinner boxes, packed with intention, will be the next stage of Cafe Ohlone for the upcoming months.

We do not know when it will be safe to dine again in-person as we once did at Cafe Ohlone, which feels like a world ago, but we know it will happen some day in the future. Wisdom from before teaches us that in challenging times we rise up for the common good to protect one another. With that wisdom in mind, we end this message to you all, our friends and our supporters, with a classical Ohlone oration about these trying times we face together. In Ohlone culture, important messages are shared in rhythmic, poetic repetition. We are grateful for all of your support and respect for Ohlone people and culture. numma, ‘ewweh ṭuuxi huyyuwiš—truthfully, a brighter day is ahead.

About the Authors

Vincent Medina (Muwekma Ohlone Tribe) is a co-founder of mak-'amham, the Cafe Ohlone.

Louis Trevino (Rumsen Ohlone community) is a co-founder of mak-'amham, the Cafe Ohlone.