Deli Favorites Reinvented at the Butcher’s Son
by Anya Wayne
In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a New York City ad campaign for Levy’s Jewish Rye Bread which featured non-Jewish New Yorkers — an older Asian man, a young Black child, and a Native American with braids — munching blissfully on a rye bread sandwich. The concept was to take a food associated with a certain culture and show its appeal to a wider audience. Famous in U.S. marketing history, the tagline was, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish rye.” The campaign became so beloved that posters of the ads were sold to the public. Many of them ended up on the walls of delis throughout the country.
With its unique version of deli fare, The Butcher’s Son on University Avenue extends the appeal of vegan food to a wider audience. A combination sit-down restaurant plus deli/market, appointed in pale wood and filled with sunlight shining through the plate glass frontage, The Butcher’s Son is a culinary destination for people seeking to revel in the joys of faux animal products. They make their own varieties of vegan protein that are closer to the real thing than any I’ve ever tasted. The only thing missing, perhaps, is a sign on the wall adopting from the Levy’s campaign that says, “You don’t have to be vegan to love the Butcher’s Son.
The menu is comprised primarily of decadent deli sandwiches, including East Coast favorites like meatball, pastrami and grinders, but also offers up healthy salads and treats like fried mozzarella, Their desserts include cheesecake and cannoli. On weekends, And it’s all vegan. The Butcher’s Son also offers brunch. The restaurant has a savory smell that is, if not meaty, still mouthwatering. Co-owner Peter Fikaris developed the menu and all the animal-protein alternatives that are its backbone. Fikaris is not the son of a butcher, but he has been working in the food business most of his life. His dad owned Michael’s American Vegetarian Diner in Berkeley, which closed in the early 2000s. According to Fikaris, his restaurant is about doing what is, “new and different, but still familiar…and doing it sustainably.” Later in our interview, Fikaris noted “Electric cars and alternative meats are better for the planet and better for ourselves.” That, he says, is also the appeal of the restaurant.
It’s Saturday afternoon, traffic is whizzing by on University Avenue, and as usual there’s a line outside The Butcher’s Son. Waiting to get in, three young guys, Howie, Josh and Sean, agree to talk with me (but not to tell me their full names). Howie and Josh say that the Buffalo Bacon Ranch Fried Chicken Sandwich is the thing to order, and they were bringing a third friend to try it. I asked if they were vegan. Only Howie was. He admitted he missed animal products, and that the alternatives they serve at The Butcher’s Son make being vegan enjoyable. “I’ve eaten here at least 20 times,” said Howie. Josh was visiting from Louisville, KY. He imagines that he would include more vegan food in his diet if there was something like The Butcher’s Son where he lives. The third friend, Sean, who described himself as an “omnivore,” wants to reduce the amount of animal protein he consumes. He was excited to try The Butcher’s Son and the sandwich his friends were raving about.
Cannoli are among my favorite desserts, and I try them whenever they are on a menu. The Butcher’s Son, in my opinion, even nails the cannoli. That’s a rare thing, since cannolis are hard to do well. Cannoli get soggy fast — nothing can prevent that; they have to be good enough to sell out quickly, so the next batch can be made. Like everything on the menu, these cannoli are slightly different than their animal-based counterparts. The vegan filling is stickier than one made of ricotta, and its sweetness has a fruity tang that the traditional filling lacks. The shell is made out of a waffle tuile, not the traditional fried dough. Still, the cannoli at The Butcher’s Son cover all the bases: creamy filling with the mouthfeel of sugar and curds is paired with a shatteringly crisp shell that breaks apart with each bite.
In addition to the food, the atmosphere inside The Butcher’s Son is part of what makes it feel so authentic. It is a deli, albeit a different kind of deli, one with open space, light and backyard seating with a rose garden. Chairs are covered in red vinyl, and spices line shelves on the wall. A separate market section fills a corner of the space, with alternative meats and cheeses, vegan desserts and other carry-out goods for sale. A harmony of customers’ voices, the clink of silverware on plates and the open-kitchen music of spatulas on the grill sing the song of good food.
Manager Ryan Walker is a young, light-haired woman with an inviting open, friendly face. She and I talked about the mix of clientele at The Butcher’s Son. “We get a lot of omnivores,” she said. “The Butcher’s Son is a welcoming place. We set an example of co-existing rather than being in your face,” she added. The Butcher’s Son’s innovative vegan concept, which draws in a wider clientele than a traditional vegetarian restaurant, might represent the next generation of vegan cuisine: Vegan 2.0, so to speak.
To Visit: The Butcher’s Son 1954 University Ave. Berkeley, CA (510) 984-0818 thebutchersveganson.com
To Order Online: thebutcherssonca.com
At the top: Buffalo Bacon Ranch Fried Chicken Sandwich
Photo Credit: Shannon LaVelle