OHLONE LAND/Oakland, CA - “We are still here.” That is what Crystal Wahpepah (Kickapoo) told me ahead of her restaurant opening, one of the first serving an all-Native American menu in the area. Crystal has 10 years of catering experience and a lifetime of learning in the kitchens of her mother and grandmother. Standing on the shoulders of her community and ancestors, Crystal brings Wahpepah’s Kitchen to its brick and mortar location at Fruitvale Station.
For many indigenous people, including myself, this moment is surreal. A wave of nostalgia washes over me as I walk into the restaurant. Kernels of corn, beans, nuts, herbs, and hundreds of other ingredients, most of which Crystal has made a conscious effort to source from indigenous producers around the country, sit on shelves of the dining room as reminders of native traditions. The pictures that cover the walls depict the family that has made Crystal’s dream a reality. Most of all, the menu, with all traditional ingredients and dishes most Native people recognize but likely haven’t seen at a restaurant, evokes pride in indigenous peoples of all tribes.
I had the honor of joining Crystal for the soft opening of the Wahpehpah’s Kitchen, and the food was just as impressive as Crystal is (She was the first Native person to be featured on Food Network’s Chopped). Her signature bison and blueberry meatballs were packed with flavor, and the single blueberry hidden inside each meatball illustrated just how much thought goes into each dish.
The most enticing dish, however, was the first one served: corn and squash soup. The soup was simple deriving flavor from the fresh corn, beans, and squash, also known as the three sisters, a sacred trio to many indigenous people. Some of the other highlights of the menu included the duck egg and wild rice patties, the blue corn polenta, and the carrots in pipian. Dessert was not forgotten; everyone needs to try the squash and chocolate pudding. Everything I tried felt like it could have been made by my aunt on the rez, right down to the Elderberry tea, effectively a hug in a cup.
Perhaps it is surprising, but there was no frybread on the menu. Many people know this to be a Native American staple and in some ways, it is a symbol of survival. I think Crystal wants non-Natives to know and Natives to realize that Natives aren’t just surviving anymore. Native people can and should thrive. Crystal is the prime example of this vision as she follows her passion and stays true to herself and her people. Frybread may have been the food of survival, but now Crystal wants to nourish her community with healthy and soul-filled foods.
(Left-Right: Joey Montoya, Crystal Wahpepah, Adam Sings In Timber, Raquel Ramirez, Woesha Hampson-Medina, Kelli Moody) at the Soft Opening of Wahpepah's Kitchen
For Crystal, this restaurant is about tribal sovereignty. Wahpepah’s Kitchen is land back for her people, the Kickapoo, for the Ohlone people, and for any group of people in the Americas that were removed from their ancestral lands. It is phenomenal to see any indigenous person accomplish their dreams, but to do it in a way that honors one’s traditions and uplifts the community as a whole, is inspiring.
Written by Woesha Hampson-Medina/Hakeezawinga (Ho-Chunk)
The Grand Opening of Wahpepah’s Kitchen is Nov 13, 2021
3301 E. 12th St. STE 133 Oakland, California
Hours of Operation
|Wednesday - Saturday||8AM - 2PM|
|Sunday||9AM - 1PM|