There’s a New Indigenous Restaurant Coming to Fruitvale
For the past 10 years, customers have been asking Crystal Wahpepah when she would turn her Oakland-based Indigenous catering business, Wahpepahâs Kitchen, into a proper restaurant. Her response was always the same: âRight time, right place.â
Now, that time has come: Wahpepah has taken over the Fruitvale BARTâadjacent space formerly occupied by Reemâs, the groundbreaking Arab bakery. When the new Wahpepahâs Kitchen opens there later this fallâhopefully by the end of October, Wahpepah saysâit will be an all-day Indigenous restaurant serving blue corn waffles, blueberry bison meatballs and a variety of colorful Native salads and stews. It will be the only place of its kind in Oakland.
Crystal Wahpepah poses inside her new restaurant in Fruitvaleâthe old Reem’s space. (Wahpepah's Kitchen)
Reemâs, which converted its Fruitvale location into a commissary kitchen during the pandemic, will move its wholesale and catering operations just around the corner.
For Wahpepah, who was born and raised in East Oakland, the restaurantâs debut will also be a homecoming. âI went to elementary school not too far from here; I live a few blocks away,â she says. âWhat better opportunity to literally serve the community you grew up in?â
The restaurant is also part of a modern Indigenous cooking movement that has been ascendant in the United States for several years now, most visibly in the Bay Area through Berkeleyâs Cafe Ohlone and Wahpepahâs own catering business, whose popularity helped land the chef a spot on the Food Network cooking competition show Chopped. Wahpepah was the first Native chef chosen to participate.Â Â
Wahpepah, who identifies as Indigenous Black American, says her business was thriving before the pandemic brought all catering to a standstill, forcing the chef to give up her commercial kitchen space. âI was trying to make ends meet,â Wahpepah says, when she started inquiring about potential kitchen spaces in Fruitvale. Reemâs founder Reem Assil wound up reaching out to her a little over a year ago, and the two women connected over their shared vision for serving Fruitvale. At the time, Assil was already contemplating a move to a larger kitchen, and she told Wahpepah that she wanted to pass the original Reemâs space on to her. âThat touched my heart big time,â Wahpepah says.Â
âIt was really important that we pass the torch to someone from the neighborhood,â Assil says. âIt was also really important to be an ally to an Indigenous Black chef as fierce as Crystal and to continue the legacy of a strong, diverse ecosystem of local business that serves the community.â
It wound up taking a year to complete the transition, during which time Wahpepah kept her business afloat by selling a line of nutrition bars made with Indigenous ingredients, including a chocolate and chokeberry bar sheâs especially proud of.
One of the hearty stews that will feature prominently on the Wahpepah’s Kitchen menu. (Wahpepah's Kitchen)
As a registered member of the Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma, Wahpepah is part of what she describes as a small but vibrant Kickapoo community in Oakland. (âWhen I run into another Kickapoo, itâs pretty cool,â she says.) Naturally, Kickapoo dishes will be well represented on the restaurantâs menu, with crowd pleasers like Wahpepahâs Kickapoo chili, which she likes to serve with a side of cornbread, and a version of the hominy and venison soup that her grandmother made back home in Oklahoma.Â
Wahpepah is no purist, though. She talks about growing up in Oaklandâs âmulti-tribal, tight-knit, urban Native community,â whose foodways spanned ingredients and influences far beyond those specific to any one tribe. The Ohlones and the Pomo tribe, both native to Northern California, were particularly influential.Â
âIâve seen so many different beautiful tribes and different foods,â Wahpepah says. âSo all these foods that I cook, itâs something that I grew up with and something that means a lot to me.â
A plate of corn-crusted salmon with fries. (Wahpepah's Kitchen)
That approach translates into a modern, varied cuisine that isnât locked into any one tradition. The food at Wahpepahâs Kitchen is âjust kind of whatâs going on in Native cooking today,â as Wahpepah puts it. Sheâs probably best known for her blue corn blueberry bison meatballs, her vibrant, colorful salads made with whateverâs in seasonâgorgeously multi-colored flint corn, for instanceâand her various hearty, wholesome corn and squash stews. But sheâll also serve french fries seasoned with sage or cedar salt. Sheâs experimented with snow cones that feature Indigenous flavors like blackberry-sage.Â
At the restaurant, the meal Wahpepah is most excited to serve is breakfast, which will feature things like sweet potato hash and waffles made with acorn or blue corn batter. âI just love creating with Indigenous ingredients,â she says.
âCrystal has always been as much about this place, the Bay Area, as she is Native and Indigenous foods,â says Caleb Zigas, the departing executive director of the La Cocina kitchen incubator, recalling the time when Wahpepah went through the program about a decade ago. âThat kind of relationship to place is so special to me, and I think you can really taste it in her food.â
Wahpepah says the restaurantâs prominent location should give her the opportunity to reach new customers who havenât experienced Indigenous food, but she believes her Native customers (âmy number one clientsâ) will continue to form the backbone of the business. And Wahpepah sees herself as very much aligned with the broader movement to revitalize Native cuisineÂ in the U.S.âa movement thatâs deeply connected to issues of food sovereignty and healing from trauma, she says.Â
Ultimately, Wahpepah wants Native customers who walk into her restaurant to feel inspired. âIf they see a dish from their tribe, I want them to feel pride. I want people to taste and feel the love. To know that these foods matter.â
Wapepahâs Kitchen is tentatively slated to open in late October at 1419 34th Avenue in Oakland, adjacent to the Fruitvale BART station. Follow the business on Instagram for updates.
Copyright 2021 KQED