The newest addition to downtown Albany’s food scene is Berben & Wolff’s, a vegan delicatessen in the space formerly occupied by The Brakes Coffee House. The deli has been getting a lot of buzz since opening, largely because there aren’t a lot of other options for the vegan crowd, and also because of the quality of the homemade ingredients. In particular, it seems like the proprietors are well known for their seitan, a vegan protein (more on that later). For some more background on the philosophy behind Berben & Wolff’s, check out this this great interview from All Over Albany.
I’ve noticed that news coverage of the deli has generated some heated discussion on the merits of vegan or vegetarian products that imitate meat. Many seem offended by the notion of “faux meat” or dishes that pretend to be something they’re not.
For what it’s worth, I’m certainly no vegetarian (my many posts pining after bacon can attest to that). But I have some close family and friends who are, and I cook a fair number of vegetarian meals. So I can appreciate that a dish doesn’t need meat to be delicious. At the end of the day, it’s really about how good the food is on its own. I don’t care what it’s imitating, or what it’s called – I just care if it’s good, period. If a vegan dish pulls inspiration from a classic meat dish for its flavor profile or texture or presentation, I’m ok with it, as long as the end result is something I enjoy.
With that in mind, I set out to try a few different types of dishes at Berben & Wolff’s this weekend. First up was the buffalo wing burger, which is composed of a seitan patty that is breaded, fried, and served with hot sauce, ranch, carrots, and celery.
I felt a little concerned when I saw the strange stringy application of ranch, but after a few bites I was convinced: this sandwich is superb. It hit all of the classic buffalo chicken notes with a pop of hot sauce (although some in our group thought it could use more sauce and heat, which can apparently be requested at the counter). The seitan patty had a nicely crisp fried shell, and the generous topping of shredded carrot and cucumber added an additional layer of crunchy depth.
Another thing I’ve noticed about the press coverage of Berben & Wolff’s is that everyone seems to assume the general public is familiar with vegan products like seitan. But a few conversations with friends proved that this most definitely isn’t the case. And perhaps a general apprehension about what the proteins are might be enough to intimidate people away from giving this place a chance.
So what exactly is seitan? Seitan is made from the protein in wheat, and it originated many centuries ago in various Asian vegan circles (think Buddhists). It’s a good alternative for people who can’t have soy-based proteins such as tofu, and it also has a better meat-like texture than many other vegan protein products.
The seitan in the buffalo wing burger was a dense, well formed patty. It did have a meat-like consistency, and a mild, savory, nutty type of flavor. The flavor itself wasn’t particularly noticeable in combination with the hot sauce, ranch, and other toppings. It really served more as a base for the crispy breading, but with a good solid heft that held together well.
We also tried the barbecue pulled jackfruit sandwich. I have to admit, I had no idea what jackfruit was before today. A little bit of internet sleuthing turned up this article, with lots of pictures! In sum, jackfruit is a large, strange looking fruit that is most common in South and Southeast Asia and that is becoming more common in American vegan food because it can be prepared in a manner similar to pulled pork.
This sandwich was very different and unusual, but pretty universally enjoyed by my group. The jackfruit has the look and consistency of a slightly softer pulled pork, but some of the large chunks were clearly fruit. The sweet undertones melded with the smokey barbecue sauce for a nice tangy combination. And the topping of red cabbage added a touch of textural contrast.
Lastly, we sampled the house-made sunflower burger, which is a veggie burger made of sunflower seeds and other vegetables, topped with lettuce, tomato, sprouts, and mayo.
After the first few dishes that really impressed us, this veggie burger was somewhat of a disappointment. I couldn’t taste much of a vegetable presence beyond the sunflower seeds. The texture was a little mealy and grainy, and could have used more crispness. We also found the seasoning to be a bit off. Compared to other meat-centric restaurants where I have been hesitant to try the veggie burger, I really expected Berben & Wolff’s to have a stronger offering.
At the end of the day, two out of three dishes that we sampled this weekend were really impressive, and by that I mean that they were delicious on their own – not as a version of something else. Yes, they are presented in a way that’s similar to meat sandwiches we’re all more familiar with. But they were also well executed, flavorful, and full of depth and textural variations.
Even if you’re not a vegan yourself, I still encourage you to give Berben & Wolff’s a try. Don’t be intimidated by the heavy presence of seitan and other non-traditional protein sources on the menu. The food stands well on its own two feet, and the quality of ingredients shines through.