It’s a hot Saturday afternoon at the Art on Lark street festival and Joey Berben and Max Wolff (above) are busy at their booth, doling out savory vegan eats to their customers. There are carrot-bacon wrapped hot dogs, BBQ pulled jackfruit sliders and pork-style meatball bahn-mi–a recipe crafted by Berben around 3 AM the night before.
The owners and creatives behind Berben & Wolff’s Vegan Delicatessen on Lark Street have recently returned from the massive Eat Drink Vegan food festival in California at the end of May.
“It’s something that I’ve been following for years so I was very honored that they reached out out to us about it,” Berben said.
The deli was invited by the festival organizers after they discovered a video of Berben’s “slovenly” vegan bacon cheddar cheeseburger on Instagram. The burger was part of a video project for the Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM) and was widely distributed on social media.
“Somebody from Eat Drink Vegan saw it and was like, ‘I want that out here,’” Berben explained. “They were super cool, they paid for our travel expenses, accommodations, [and] they waived some of the fees.”
At the festival, Berben & Wolff brought their A-game. They showcased the notorious Instagram burger–enhanced with some smoked onion jam–and treated the west coast to some classic New York deli eats with a hefty Italian Mix with housemade vegan pepperoni, smoked ham and cheese. To top it off they brought their local legend–seitan wings with vegan blue cheese–in all of its breaded perfection.
“That’s our most popular thing so I felt like it would showcase us the best,” Berben said.
The tasty seitan wings are available in flavors like buffalo, garlic parm, BBQ and pesto and are sold in an even wider variety of flavors in local eateries throughout Albany and Troy such as The Ruck, Juniors (both in Albany and North Greenbush), The Hollow Bar + Kitchen, Café 217, the Savoy Taproom and McGeary’s. The fiery mango habanero at Juniors in North Greenbush is a must-try and if the habanero is too hot, the vegan blue cheese is there to save you.
The deli has been distributing seitan since their start–first cooking the wings and other experimental meals for friends in Berben’s kitchen and setting up pop-ups at local DIY music venues. Soon they were taking on accounts with Iron Gate Cafe and other local spots when they moved their growing business into the Trinity United Methodist Church food pantry– just around the corner from the bustling upstairs deli where they now reside. Lark Street almost lost Berben & Wolff’s to Troy when Cory Nelson began putting together Troy Kitchen–the chic food court and bar on Congress Street–in 2015. “We were the first vendor to sign up when it was still an idea,” Berben said. “But we stumbled upon this place and it just made sense for us. This is our neighborhood.”
The dynamic and flavorful menu has brought vegan food to customers that would otherwise be averse to the unfamiliar ingredients of the deli’s menu items.
“It’s not even geared towards people who are vegetarian,” Berben said. “It’s just something different. Sometimes we’ll use the name for things–say the reuben with seitan pastrami–but if somebody doesn’t know what to expect, now they know what they’re getting with that flavor profile. It’s a transitional thing for a lot of people.”
At Berben & Wolff’s, vegan food doesn’t need an excuse to be delicious and there’s no need for the ingredients to prove themselves as being “just as good” as their meat alternatives. “I’ve always had a weird take one that,” Berben said, “When people are like, ‘Oh, you’re trying to make chicken wings.’ No, I just wanna make seitan wings. It’s its own thing.”
Aside from a mention in their social media accounts, the establishment doesn’t advertise it’s veganism at all. It can’t be found on their logo–stuck to the street-facing window of the deli–or anywhere inside.
“A good amount of people who come in and aren’t vegan will try a sandwich and they don’t even know. That was sort of intentional because I didn’t want to use these buzzwords that scare people. I didn’t want to be in-your-face about it and it’s more effective that way.”
There’s the massive breakfast sandwich ($9-below) with peppery vegan eggs and smoked ham, dripping with Daiya cheese on a Rock Hill sub roll and a side of fresh berries and oranges to make it complete. The BBQ jackfruit ($11) is marinated with enough sauce to bring out the character of a pulled pork without being sloppy and is served with a tangy scoop of red cabbage slaw. The T.L.T.–tempeh bacon, leafy greens, sprouts and tomato for $11–has brought even the bacon-haters back for more and the wing burger ($12) is a popular order–turning the seitan wonders into a buffalo or BBQ-flavored sandwich topped with shredded carrot and celery. Whether you’re a dedicated vegan or full-on carnivore, there is a diverse and satisfying menu at Berben & Wolff’s that caters to everyone.
The beauty of the deli, Berben said, is “having something that’s approachable–somewhere you can bring your dad and he can get a sandwich and it’s gonna be good. You have to let the food speak for itself.”
Photos by Kiki Vassilakis