A vegan taco pop-up hosted by a vegan delicatessen might sound like the most Berkeley thing ever. But if you walk into The Butcher's Son in downtown Berkeley on a Wednesday night, when Taqueria La Venganza is running the kitchen, it's striking how much the place resembles any other reputable taqueria — the steam rising up as the "meat" sizzles on the flat-top, the charred-corn smell of the tortillas, and the bottles of Negra Modelo lining the fridge.
In fact, one of my favorite things about both the deli and the pop-up is how they don't feel vegan — Ghostbusters-style No-Meat sign above the trash bin notwithstanding.
That seems like a backhanded compliment, but hear me out: In my experience, the most delicious vegetarian restaurants are the ones grounded in some culinary tradition that goes beyond the mere absence of meat. An awesome Chinese-Buddhist vegetarian restaurant or kick-ass vegan falafel joint will almost always trump the kind of generic vegan restaurant where black-bean burgers and the tempeh rice bowls reign supreme.
So, it's refreshing to see that a place like The Butcher's Son — one of the first vegan delicatessens to open in the United States — doesn't take existing vegan restaurants as its main reference points. Instead, chef-owner Peter Fikaris, who opened the deli in February along with his sister, Christina Stobing, explained that the business was inspired by old-school Jewish and Italian-American delis. Fikaris didn't grow up on the East Coast; he's not, as he put it, "from a certain neighborhood in Brooklyn." But he spent enough time in New York and Philadelphia to develop an affinity for the deep-rooted deli culture in those cities. And some of Fikaris's favorite memories from when he was a teenager, before he gave up meat, were of going to the local deli to buy meats and cheeses in bulk.
That nostalgic connection to the food is one of the most appealing things about a place like, say, Katz's Delicatessen in New York. And that kind of "emotional experience" is what Fikaris said he's found to be mostly missing from the vegan restaurant scene. For people who didn't grow up vegan, that's an especially big deal because at the end of the day, the human brain is wired to want what it wants. When it's late at night and he's feeling kind of buzzed, Fikaris explained, "I don't want to eat tempeh and rice. I want a hot pastrami sandwich."
At The Butcher's Son, the deli counter resembles what you'd find at any old-school deli — a chalkboard menu listing around eight sandwiches (from a Philly cheesesteak to a meatball sub) and a display case stocked (albeit somewhat sparely) with slabs of "meat" and "cheese" available for purchase by the pound. Instead of offering kombucha on tap, The Butcher's Son stocks its fridge with old-fashioned New York Seltzer. On the weekend, there are bagels, which you can order topped with hummus-like chive cream cheese, and glazed doughnuts topped with what may have been the tastiest, and most realistic, faux bacon I've ever eaten.
Ultimately, you have to judge a vegan delicatessen by the quality of its fake meats — or "plant-based" meats, to use the preferred nomenclature. Most of Fikaris's handiwork is seitan-based, and he said that while he isn't reinventing the wheel, he does put more oil, vinegar, and spices into his "meats" than is typical. He claims, for instance, that he's the only vegan pastrami-maker he knows of who uses pickle-brine to season his seitan-based pastrami, then roasts it and smokes it — the same techniques you'd use for a traditional pastrami.
That pastrami wasn't available during my visits, but by and large, the sandwiches that I tried passed muster — in terms of tastiness if not strict East Coast deli orthodoxy. Many had an oozy, overstuffed quality that helped dispel any notion of health food. The hot roast "beef" sandwich (featuring thin slices of griddled seitan) was loaded with so much mustard and caramelized onion that it was nearly impossible to eat without making a mess. The pulled pork sandwich was a showcase for strips of yuba (aka tofu skins), barbecue sauce, and coleslaw — an addictive combination, if slightly sweet for my tastes.
My favorite was the grinder, a regional specialty that, veganized or not, you'll rarely find in the Bay Area. Fikaris's hearty version featured a trio of faux meats: chopped steak, bacon, and slices of Chinese chili garlic sauce-infused "chicken," whose savory, melt-in-your-mouth quality reminded me of good gyro meat more than it did any meat substitute. Loaded with lettuce, tomato, and pepperoncini (for extra kick), the sandwich was just the thing to scratch this East Coast transplant's nostalgic deli itch.
Taqueria La Venganza invokes a different kind of nostalgia — namely, Mexican-American chef Raul Medina's memories of the food he grew up eating when visiting his grandmother's ranch in Durango, Mexico. But the underlying impulse isn't so different: Why shouldn't someone who grew up eating carnitas or al pastor tacos be able to get a proper version of those dishes just because he or she became a vegan?
So much of the conversation about vegan food centers on the accuracy of the meat simulation. What I appreciated about Taqueria La Venganza is how there wasn't any pretense that the meats were even supposed to seem "real." Medina might not agree with that assessment, given how much care he puts into the marinating the yuba that he uses for all of his alternative meats — an intensive, two-step process that first infuses the tofu skins with flavors that evoke whatever kind of meat he's emulating. For the carnitas, for instance, he marinates the tofu skins in liquid smoke and an assortment of Aztec spices to create a "porky" effect, then gives them a quick dip in citrus and Coca-Cola prior to cooking. For his carne asada, Medina cuts the yuba into thick slices and marinates it in Negra Modelo and lime juice. Sometimes he'll mix in a "birria" — which gets smoked in the smoker — or a "tripe," which Medina claims tastes just as gamey as the real thing.
By the time I arrived at the pop-up on a recent Wednesday, Medina was sold out of everything but the carnitas, which looked remarkably similar to the slow-cooked pork when shredded and piled on top of a taco. But I never suffered any illusions that I was eating anything other than yuba — though, granted, I've probably eaten more tofu skins in my life than the average taco eater. More importantly: Yuba is delicious! Particularly so on a taco, it turns out. Chalk it up to the famous flavor-soaking properties of tofu, and to the way the chopped yuba crisped up and took on an extra bit of smokiness on the flat-top. Those flavors were accentuated by Medina's excellent house-made salsas — especially the orange-hued one, which Medina makes with tiny, intensely spicy chiltepin chilies.
The wonder of Medina's pop-up is that if you close your eyes, you might imagine that you've been transported, if not to Mexico proper, then perhaps to a bustling taqueria in Fruitvale. (You may not see too many actual Mexican people dining here, but that's a different conversation.) What I love is that Medina has chosen to specialize in street tacos at a time when real vegan street food (as opposed to vegan food that happens to be served off a food truck) feels like a rarity. At Taqueria La Venganza, the tacos were simple and unfussy, topped with just cilantro and onions. The quesadillas — filled with a soupy bean sauce that has simmered so long it resembles refried beans — and the hand-pressed tortillas were charred and odd-shaped, giving them an appealing rustic quality. Who cares if they were vegan? These were tacos I would gladly eat anytime.