sandwiches from vegan deli and butcher photo by mabel suen

Vegan Deli and Butcher serves excellent takes on classics in south St. Louis

Chris Bertke has a tendency to look frazzled, but if you watch him at work in his new open kitchen on the high-trafficked crook of Morgan Ford Road and Gravois Avenue, there's a grace and calm about him. He's delicate with his herbs, he slices his subs and breads gently. He moves about behind the counter like Mister Rogers at his puppets. If it weren't for the punk rock on the stereo, you might think to roll out a sleeping bag and a doobie.

There's a black transfer on the wall as you walk in: a silhouette of a pig wielding a cleaver, two humans cowering in fear. You get the point and you are glad to be here. For all the menace of the illustration, Vegan Deli and Butcher at 5003 Gravois Ave. feels like a safe place to be. Everything is OK on this corner; no harm's being done.

I'm good with that. And because I do believe in a future where my brain isn't woefully compartmentalized when it comes to eating animals, and my stomach doesn't believe their products are essential for life, I'm bringing out the band for Bertke. In his actual world, vegan food is the first choice because, the way he makes it, it can be insanely good. With him in the kitchen, that world feels possible; the future feels like it's here.


vegan deli & butcher // photo by mabel suen


But this is the thing I always wonder: Is the principal goal to outfox the rapacious carnivore or simply coax them to the gentler side with toothsome, meat-mimicking soy and wheat products? (He happens to do both). And then, on the other hand, what do vegans think when they bite down on a "short rib" bánh mì and its meatily threaded, perfectly stringed and has exactly the right chew? Is this like despising cake but loving cakey? Hating green, but wearing the vest because it looks so good with those mustard pants? Oh, whatevs. Compartments again.

And it doesn't matter right now. We are here, surely, to talk about taste, about satisfaction, regardless of how it's produced. And Bertke is a wizard.


vegan deli & butcher chef chris bertke // photo by mabel suen


He was a wizard before, when he headed the kitchen at Utah Station and people couldn't get enough of his Crack Tacos, and he may — in his very own brick-and-mortar, which opened in November — be more of one now. For instance, with a wand and a waft of sea kelp, his cured carrots become lox. By working his magic on soy protein, his beef has just the right bounce. For example, if not for the wimpy jalapeños, that aforementioned bánh mì — a special the day we went — was impressive. Bound tight in parchment with daikon, carrot and a delicious woodsy smear of mushroom pate, it was pretty darn close to Mai Lee's. (Those weedy jalapeños could be hotter.)

Even he seemed surprised by the result.

"Yeah, wasn't that nuts?" he says, and goes on to talk about the process: "I began with a soy and wheat base. I made a blob, added oil for richness, braised it, let it sit, gave it an oil and spice bath ..."

That's when I ask if he has a background in chemistry.

"No," he says. "I like to drink and, late night, the fucked-up ideas come."

While Utah Station had a fast-food bent, Bertke's latest venture riffs on an East Coast deli. So, yes, there are bagels and lox (the bagels come weekly from New York); yes, there are cold cuts tucked into buns with cheeses and pickly peppers; and yes — you heard it right — there's a Maine "lobster" roll. It's kind of a beauty. Actually it's two rolls — two buns a-bulge with a juicy amalgam of jackfruit, hearts of palm (clever), celery, onion and a faintly sweet Thousand Island mayo.

Bertke keeps some of his tricks up his sleeve. He will only say that his cream cheese materializes from a secret whip of tofu and coconut oil, and that most of his meats have something to do with seitan treated in unusual ways.

"I have no recipe books," he said. "And I don't read."

It's a small shop, but clean and bright. Two high-tops, a few benches, an exposed brick wall. Fans of Bertke's to-go-only frozen pizza will be pleased to see the packed stand-up freezer. It's a pizza version of a DMV number dispenser; almost everyone seems to take one (although, in this case, no one looks grim).

It's easier to do pizza tricks in St. Louis, where Provel isn't an oddity but the thing. Don't know how many decades it's been since my lone taste of that processed cheese product, but from memory, at least, I couldn't tell the difference from the vegan version. Had Bertke's way, I liked it. I wasn't as worried about the cheesy, liquidy slick. Nor was I worried about the circular 'kerchiefs of salami, the knots of herby sausage. And afterward, once I'd scarfed seven-eighths of a Spicy Italian and still felt spry, I asked myself: Is the "real thing" really worth it?

The clientele at Vegan Deli & Butcher is interesting. For every ear gauge, there's a silvery head. But the day I went, Gen Xers (if that's what I "untechnically" am) were in short supply. By appearances, on that day at least, my generation — which should know better — doesn't. Except for Bertke, who hasn't eaten meat in 30 years.

Later that day, after my initial visit to Bertke's green kingdom, I told my son, who has been mainlining meat since he was two, that there was half a Reuben in the fridge. As he opened the door and reached in, my poker face was mint — expressionless, a little bit bored.

It's a fat hunk of a sandwich, but tender: lovely, fresh marble rye (picked up each morning from Marconi Bakery on the Hill) clasping a juicy, saucy bundle of junipery corned beef, vinegary kraut and a rosy Thousand Island dressing.

"Dang, Mum," he said, biting in. "This kicks."

I didn't say a word.

This article was originally published by the Riverfront Times.