Above: The Big Max burger from Berben & Wolff’s. Photos by Kiki Vassilakis

Lately, Joey Berben has been pretty into molecular gastronomy, crafting egg-like membranes in a process called spherification for a dish of poutine with polenta fries and saffron bearnaise topped with a fried “egg” served at a February vegan pop-up brunch at The Hollow Bar + Kitchen in Albany.

“Is it unnecessary?” Berben asks. “Yes. But it’s cool to have something that’s basically a fried egg with a poppable yolk you can dip into. It’s aesthetically appealing, something you can get weird with.”

When it comes to playing with food, the co-owner and culinary brain of the Lark Street vegan deli Berben & Wolff’s works on a whim, based on his creative phases and random cravings. It’s what inspires such a diverse assortment of weekly specials, like heart of palm “crab” cakes on homemade cheddar biscuits, eggplant “clam” rolls (marinated eggplant strips battered in chickpea flour) and meatball subs with cauliflower “mozzarella.” Each Wednesday, he lines up dreamy wing flavors like pepperoni pizza, apricot mustard, dill pickle or smoked onion and brown sugar. 

“It’s thinking about and being familiar with the ingredients that you use,” he says.

He’s constantly thinking about food. Berben describes walking through the grocery store eyeing strange and unfamiliar ingredients and imagining what they could become, or revisiting a familiar food like cauliflower and turning it into something indulgent, like alfredo sauce.

The Berben & Wolff’s menu seems entirely crafted in that direction, taking foods that are generally nutritious and cruelty-free and turning them into rich and mouth-watering. Take their “Big Max” for example: a double-stacked vegan burger reminiscent of the heaving fast-food culture icon. 

“It’s really geared towards things I feel like people are familiar with,” he says. “It’s obviously that gluttonous, American, fast-food, comfort sort of thing that is gonna appeal to a bunch of different people. Breaking it down, really looking at it from a culinary perspective, everything is flavor, texture, nutrition.”

Above: Ryan Hawk starts work a BBQ pulled jackfruit order.

He uses one of the deli’s most popular menu items—the BBQ Pulled Jackfruit—as another prime example. The jackfruit base matches the texture of pulled pork and its seasoning, while sweet and smoky barbecue flavor and the crunch of cabbage slaw pull it all together. A backyard summer barbecue in a sandwich: you can almost smell the fresh cut grass on your neighbor’s lawn.

“It’s not as much mimicking as it is just a weird evolution of that dish—that classic, American food we are used to eating,” he continues. “Some people get really tight about it, saying, ‘Why are you trying to make that taste like this?’ It’s like that with all types of cooking, any kind of food. They make foam out of cilantro, that’s not its natural form. I just want to do something cool and new and progressive. Food is about being progressive.”

But Berben doesn’t spend too much time actually planning out the meals that have earned the deli such a devout following. More often than not, inspiration for a special won’t hit him until the night before and he’ll find himself in the grocery store looking for ingredients to experiment with for the rest of the night. But it’s never a chore; it’s an adventure.

“I think that’s how things come out the best,” he says. “I’m doing things out of excitement so I’m putting 110 percent into it. I like to see how people respond so I can see whether this was a really good idea or a really stupid idea because I’ve definitely done some questionable things.” 

He laughs when asked what those “questionable” menu items have been, saying that it’s never been the sloppy or heavy sandwiches that left customers shrugging, but the raw salads and dishes dense with greens. 

“It’s always a gamble to me,” he smiles, incredulous. “You’d think a vegan restaurant, that’s what everybody wants, but they just want the gluttonous stuff.”  

Since the Albany restaurant opened back in 2016, Berben & Wolff’s has been booming. They’ve been a consistent presence at local festivals like Lark Fest, pop-up dining events and community fundraising like the June 2018 Stick It to Child Homelessness stickball tournament, the 2018 J20 benefit show and vegan events at the Albany Social Justice Center. 

In 2017, the deli started up wholesale operations in Troy, producing the wheat gluten, or seitan, protein in the form of pastrami, pepperoni and wings that make up so much of their menu and specials. It’s the reason you can find their wildly popular wings in bars and restaurants across the Capital Region—like Juniors, The Ruck and Savoy Taproom—and their pepperoni at D.P. Dough. They’re currently working on designing packaging material to begin selling the goods for local retailers, like the Albany co-op Honest Weight. 

“A lot of the things we make here, we sell wholesale,” he says, explaining that the brunt of the effort is managed by having a solid team to help balance the workload. He praises his business partner Max Wolff, wholesale manager Ryan Feiner and deli manager Ryan Hawk.

Above: (L-R) Max Wolff and Ryan Hawk.

“For a while I was just driving myself crazy trying to do everything and be everywhere,” Berben explains. “You’ve got to find good people who are reliable. That’s what carrying this, honestly. Good people.”

With more hands on deck, Berben & Wolff’s has the breadth to manage more community involvement, business plans like the recent announcement of a new space at the corner of Fourth and Ferry Street in Troy and fun, challenging events. They dished out turkey style roasts with sage apple stuffing, butternut mac and cheese and rich baked goods by The Caker for vegans to eat their fill with friends and family over the holidays. In February, they began preparing Super Bowl platters of wings, subs and dips.

“To be able to provide someone with that option, like a vegan buffalo chicken dip, makes things like that more inclusive,” Berben says. “A lot of times those things aren’t vegan friendly and [providing] stuff like that helps break down those weird walls.”

And it’s working. For their pop-up brunch at The Hollow, which kept Berben so focused on new culinary strategies, tickets sold out in a matter of hours. An additional 25 tickets had to be added to keep up with demand. On Halloween, they crafted a seitan arm and head to attach to a dummy for a “cannibal feast” in collaboration with their Lark Street neighbor Pint Sized, a craft beer and bottle shop. After its success, the businesses have opted to team up again for an “alien autopsy roast” on April 20, tasking Berben and the team to construct a small edible extraterrestrial. 

“It’s cool that people are so receptive,” Berben says. “That’s always been a question. I think about, if we were to do this full time around here, would people come out like they are for these events? Or, are they only coming out because they’re specialties? I kind of like keeping it that way. It gives us flexibility.”

Outside of their home base operations, the team has attended vegan food festivals across the country, drawing the attention of national media outlets like NowThis for their ability to “veganize” dishes like the reuben, which some customers say is the best they’ve ever had, meat or otherwise. 

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With their sharp attention to flavor and detail, Berben & Wolff’s culinary creations have made an impact, not only on the local community, but on the perception of what food should look, feel and taste like. And the crew is just getting started.

“When we first opened I was a little more scattered, juggling stuff,” Berben says. “But as of now, very recently, I have time to step away and focus on creative things instead of feeling more like a line cook. Right now, I feel like, [it’s] the start of a real creative point.”   

Above: (L-R) Joey Berben and Max Wolff, co-owners of Berben & Wolff’s Vegan Delicatessen in the kitchen of their original deli on Lark Street in Albany.

Berben & Wolff’s Vegan Delicatessen 
227 Lark St., Albany
(518) 599-5309 
10 AM – 8 PM Tues.-Sat. 
10 AM – 3 PM Sun.