You know when that craving strikes for a meatball sandwich? The kind that is slathered in tomato sauce with sautéed onions, bell peppers and mushrooms, topped with a generous hunk of mozzarella? A sandwich that requires multiple napkins to catch all the juice that dribbles down your chin?
The next time that very craving strikes, try something different and head to The Butcher’s Son in Berkeley. Not only will you enjoy the hell out of that sandwich, but you can feel virtuous about the fact that an animal didn’t have to die for it, nor did your sandwich contribute to the emission of greenhouse gasses. Yep, everything on the menu at The Butcher’s Son is vegan.
While Nosh sampled a few different dishes at the new deli on University Avenue, the meatball sandwich was the one that wowed us. Now, The Butcher’s Son’s version certainly wouldn’t fool us into thinking we were eating the real thing; however, it was delicious enough that its vegan-ness almost became irrelevant.
In texture, both the ‘meatballs’ and the breaded and fried non-dairy cheese were as close a vegan match to the real thing as we’ve ever tasted. The cheese was particularly impressive, possessing the requisite string cheesiness we’ve come to expect with mozzarella.
Another sandwich choice, the Spicy Chicken B.L.A.T. (made with well-seasoned garlic and chili roasted chicken), didn’t quite have the same spot-on texture. However, both the chicken and the bacon tasted remarkably close to the real thing.
Even better was the cannoli-donut. With a generous dollop of a ricotta-like filling piped on top of the fried dough, this dessert hybrid had us fooled. Indeed, if we had tried it without knowing that it was vegan, we wouldn’t have noticed the ricotta wasn’t real cheese at all. (The cannolis, donuts and the hybrid are all made in-house. Vegan croissants come courtesy of Monsieur Vegan Croissant, and other desserts come from Alicia Smiley of well.fed.)
Now, there’s definitely an argument to be made for eating plant-based food that resembles actual plants — not meat substitutes. But when a restaurant can make a sandwich as good as the meatball sub, it makes a substantive argument for this kind of vegan food to be out there, too.
Peter Fikaris, the chef/owner behind The Butcher’s Son, grew up in a vegetarian household, and has been vegan for the past four years. His father was not, despite the restaurant’s name, a butcher. He was, Fikaris said, a “spiritual teacher.”
“There’s a whole new generation coming along of people who were raised by people doing things the old way,” he said, explaining how he came up with the name. “You may [or may not] have had a butcher for a father, but now people are changing their ways and the foods they eat. They’re looking at things differently, at sustainability and the impact food has.”
He continued: “This is my new way of doing [business], a vegan version of butcher shop … and deli.”
Fikaris grew up in the restaurant business; his family owned Michael’s American Vegetarian Diner in the 1990s. “I’ve worked in restaurants my whole life,” he said. “I’ve probably worked for about 30 different ones.”
Fikaris spent a year testing recipes for the meats and cheeses in his repertoire. One day, the idea for a vegan deli just kind of happened and he thought, “I really like this idea, this is awesome.” He started doing research on how to develop different tastes and textures with seitan and nut milks.
Around the same time, three of his relatives fell ill, and Fikaris became their caretakers. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. “It gave me the opportunity to spend 12 hours a day in the kitchen, as I was taking care of them and developing products at the same time,” he said. “I spent all my time cooking for them and taking care of them [and] when the time was right, I had what I needed.”
That includes meats like pulled pork made from tofu skins (yuba) and sliced steak, hot roast beef, and thin slices of chicken made from a mix of wheat gluten and high protein flour.
To prepare the various meats, Fikaris tinkers with the ratios of gluten and flour to liquid and oil. “It also makes a big difference if you steam or roast [the meats],” he said. “We have a smoker, and soon pastrami will show up and we’ll smoke some cheeses.”
The bacon is the one meat item that he doesn’t make in-house. Fikaris said that the bacon, made from soy and an Asian gelatin substitute called konjac, is better than anything he could make on his own.
On the cheese side, he’s developed mozzarella, cotija, swiss, feta, pepper jack and a drunken goat from mixtures of almond and cashew milks. Most of the cheeses are a blend of the two nut milks. In general, the cheesemaking process involves blending a live culture with soaked nuts for up to 12 hours in a warm environment, “and then the live cultures just grow, making it funky and cheesy,” Fikaris said.
Fikaris gave us a sample of the cotija and the drunken goat cheese to try at home. Both cheeses looked lovely on the plate, but they were ultimately disappointing. The drunken goat definitely had red wine notes and a bit more fermented funk than the cotija, but we found both cheeses fairly bland. And sure, the blandness could be somewhat overcome by eating the cheeses with some jam or olives, but it was hard to get beyond both cheeses’ crumbly texture.
Fikaris’s menu is still in development. There are now just eight sandwiches on offer, but a burger is coming soon, as well as carrot lox and whitefish salad to put on the Baron Baking bagels they serve. Meanwhile, other meats and cheeses can be bought in bulk to take home. Deli offerings include pineapple teriyaki roast and farmer style beef bologna.
Fikaris admits that all this talk of meat can be confusing to customers who wander in off the street. He said some leave once they discover the whole menu is vegan, but others don’t realize what they’ve ordered until they dive into their sandwich.
“That has happened,” he said. “A lot of omnivores love the food. I’m not trying to hide it or trick people, but perhaps I should warn people that their roast beef has gluten.”
While Fikaris said he’s not trying to convert anyone to veganism, he hopes that more omnivores will satisfy their meat cravings with a stop at his place more often.
“I think it’s the direction we need to go in as a society,” he said. “We’re living off a really old system that’s not working for the size of the population we have now, and we need to make some changes. People have their addictions and foods they love to eat and that’s understandable, but we can’t afford, as a planet, to eat a steak or drink a gallon of milk every day.”