Dining al desko: Berben and Wolff’s

When a restaurant bills itself as a vegan delicatessen, there are two ways the meal could go: a take-out container filled with pretension and invented, arbitrary food morals at an equally arbitrary and pretentious price, or a menu full of frankenfood masquerading as meat. Thankfully, lunch at Berben and Wolff’s on Lark Street in charming downtown Albany went a third direction: genuine and satisfying.

Only two years old, the small, six-table restaurant serves up vegan fare that you want to eat whether you’ve shunned meat and dairy or not. Joey Berben and Max Wolff aren’t just slinging meat substitutes to satiate the protein-deficient masses. The menu is meatless but is also thoughtful. No need to suffer for your dietary choices. Berben and Wolff’s layers texture on flavor, making the most of seitan, jackfruit and tofu for a lunch as satiating as anything coming out the business end of a deli slicer.

My first go ’round with Berben and Wolff’s was the barbecue pulled jackfruit. Ordering over the phone was easy and upon pickup, the order was accurate. Most notable, however, was the tenor of the eatery. The man at the counter was laid-back. Maybe I looked like a carnivore, maybe I didn’t. He didn’t seem to care. He wasn’t there to lecture me on the cruelty of eating a delicious roasted chicken; he was there to serve up good food. The end. It just happens to not involve the killing of chickens. His easy manner was disarming and inviting.

Jackfruit is a common substitute for pulled pork and for good reason. It has a natural but subtle sweetness and takes flavor as well as tofu. The texture was impressive. Softer than real pulled pork, the jackfruit held up well against a bath of spicy, smoky and mildly sweet sauce and had the same “pulled” quality as any smoked Wilbur – strands and chunks, but not stringy or flimsy.

A layer of crunchy and cool vegan slaw tempered the bold peppery heat and was a texture and flavor counterpoint to the soft, spicy jackfruit.

The bun held up well against the saucy jackfruit but was almost incidental to the dish. It could have stood a few seconds on the flat top for a bit of char and crunch.

The standard deli back-up singers known as chips and a pickle rounded out the $12 lunch pick.

Perhaps it was the chips and pickle that was the reassuring anchor of this take out treat. Eating vegan may be a moral or personal choice, but it certainly doesn’t mean that food has to be boring or even healthy. Get yours. Hold the meat. And at Berben and Wolff’s, you can hold the pretension, too.

Berben and Wolff’s, 227 Lark Street, Albany, NY, berbenandwolffs.com

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