After over a year of waiting, vegans of Berkeley can finally rejoice. The Butcher's Son is open. Sort of.
"We're definitely not completely ready to open," said co-owner Peter Fikaris. But who needs things like menus or full deli cases? The hungry people in line so far don't seem to mind eating whatever Fikaris happens to be making.
The vegan deli, run by Fikaris and his sister, Christina Stobing, was originally supposed to open on Solano Avenue, but disagreements with the landlords put a nix on those plans. On Jan. 1, the duo got the keys to their current space, on University Avenue, in the same building as Bonita Fish Market, and set an opening date: Feb. 22. Then it was a "mad rush," said Fikaris, to be ready in time.
There isn't a menu yet, literally. When you get to the counter at the front of the line, the cashier tells you what is currently available. That doesn't take long, though, since there were only three sandwiches being made at lunchtime yesterday. Those sandwiches were also constantly changing, as they ran out of items.
The plan, said Stobing, is to have the full menu rolled out in the next three weeks, after they see how the first few days go. There will be bagels in the morning from Baron Baking, croissants from a local French pastry maker, and Monday morning there was even cheesecake from well.fed. Bakery. Midday will see at least five (and possibly ten) sandwiches on the menu, with bread from Panorama Baking and everything else made in-house. Sandwiches will all be around $10.95 and will include a build-your-own option and a burger. There will also be cannolis—a few of which made their way to eager hands on Monday morning—and some salads. And, ultimately, the deli case, which was rather sparse on opening day, will be full of meats and cheeses that can also be ordered and shipped out of town. But not yet.
It should go without saying that the "meat" and "cheese" for sale in that deli counter aren't really meat or cheese. But what has kept fans anxiously waiting for the deli's opening is that the food is fairly unique tasting in the world of vegan food.
Fikaris said his techniques are "definitely not something that's used by anyone else," and not something he can go into lots of detail about either. Along with traditional techniques, like braising the "meats," he also employs secret tricks of the trade he's formulated over years in the industry. "It's a process," he said. "It can take up to four days of labor to make the feta."
Fikaris and Stobing grew up helping at their father Michael’s American Vegetarian Diner, which served up food on Telegraph Avenue in the 1990s and early 2000s. Fikaris also owns Pretty Dog Hot Sauce and has worked in a number of pop-ups and cafes through the years.
His experiences shows in the quality of the food.
I'm not vegan and, with a few exceptions, I've never been wildly impressed with friends' efforts to convince me of the tastiness of their vegan offerings. The Butcher's Son, though, holds its own.
I tried the wildly popular meatball and mozzarella sandwich ($10.95), which sold out shortly after I ate mine. The mozzarella is made of soaked cashews, cultured cashews, water, and refined coconut oil. The meatballs are made of mushrooms, vegetable protein, and wheat-gluten. It's all mixed together with marinara, grilled peppers and onions, and mushrooms for an effect that isn't quite a regular meatball sandwich, but which is tasty and hearty in its own right. The "meat" has a tendency to crumble, but the bread and "cheese" are exceptional.
In some ways, the sandwiches need new names that do them justice on their own terms. The pulled pork sandwich ($10.95) doesn't much taste like pulled pork, but it does taste tangy and sweet, both filling and not as heavy as the meatballs. The pulled pork is made from yuba skins and then soaked in barbecue sauce. Order potato salad or coleslaw with your sandwiches, and you'll be guaranteed to have leftovers.
For at least the next few weeks, things are still up in the air at the brick East Coast-style (with a very West Coast touch) deli. The shop is closed on Wednesdays, for now, and will be adjusting its menu and offerings based on responses from customers. If you head to the comfortable small shop you may not know what you're going to get, but you know it'll be good.