Can Vegan Pizza Compare to the Real Thing?

Saying farewell to cheese
Pure Pizza’s pesto pizza, served vegan.

THERE'S A GOAT here. It’s a rescue goat, and it’s in uptown’s French Quarter on a sunny spring Saturday—Charlotte’s first one since the season started. The goat’s garnering attention and generous pats from strangers who are enjoying beers and bites on the shared patio area of the Brevard Court restaurants. I am one of those people ogling the adorable leashed animal, but I can’t shake the obvious irony of the situation.

Goats are one of the glorious animals that ignite the cheese-making process. Their milk, along with the milk of cows, buffalo, and sheep, is used to make the beloved, melt-in-your-mouth dairy product. 

The dang goat is taunting me.

My boyfriend, Brad, and I stare unenthusiastically at the Zablong pizza we just plopped on the table. It is the fifth and final vegan pizza I’ve tasted within four days. No cheese, just “angry tomato sauce” (a spicy marinara), heaps of green and red peppers, caramelized onions, and pineapple. The very-red pizza looks nothing like anything I’d ever order, especially given my affinity for the savory satisfaction of gooey cheese.

But I want to see how vegans do it.

Given Charlotte’s sprawling greenway system, colorful juice bar presence, and all those bike shares dotting the sidewalks, our city has become seemingly health-conscious. And with that health consciousness comes modern mindful eating—some people participate in “meatless Mondays,” and others go full vegan. Veganism is an important life choice for many in our city, and for some, it’s a necessity. If I ever needed to go vegan, I wondered, what would be the limit? To which of my favorite foods would I have to bid adieu because of the lack of vegan options? So began the great vegan pizza adventure.

I started with Brixx Wood Fired Pizza in Birkdale Village. Brixx, like the other four pizza places I visited, was a suggestion from Charlotte-area vegan pizza eaters in the Pink Social Girl Tribe Facebook group. I sat alone in the empty dining room just before the weekday lunch rush, as I tried to order my first-ever vegan meal.

“Um… Do you have a most-popular vegan pizza?” I asked, aimlessly navigating the menu. My question felt like an echo.

The server replied with a phrase that turned out to be a recurring one: “Not really, but we have vegan cheese you can put on just about any pie.”

All right, I said to myself, as I fumbled through the choices. My eyes darted to entries for saliva-inducing Buffalo Chicken pizza and Sweet Thai Chicken pizza, only to lower seconds later with the realization that chicken, like cheese, is not vegan-approved. This vegan thing is hard.

I ordered what felt like my only option that didn’t require a lot of substitutions: Wood-Roasted Vegetable with vegan cheese, of course. When the pie came out, I was struck by its beauty. It was a 10-inch masterpiece of charred broccoli, mushrooms, onions, peppers, and fresh oregano piled high on a layer of tomato sauce.

I dug in. The first bite was my maiden voyage into vegan cheese-dom. Crunch. I was impressed. Bite after bite, I started to think that vegan cheese (Brixx uses Daiya brand) isn’t so bad. It tastes like dairy cheese, thanks to the delayed salty flavor that takes over your taste buds a couple of chews in.

But then, it happened. I started noticing the texture and mouthfeel of the vegan cheese. By my third slice, my chewing slowed down and I noticed a slimy, almost sticky, texture as I tried to swallow my bite. As Brad would later describe it, “It feels like it never goes away.”

The vegan cheese unmasked itself. I lost my appetite for a bit, and took the rest of the pizza to go.

Later that day, I ventured into Concord’s Blaze Pizza, a make-your-own, fast-casual chain. It’s tough to find vegan-approved ingredients, so, nervous and clueless, I created a pie with tomato sauce, vegan cheese, onions, and peppers.

“That’s it?” asked the girl making the pizza right before my eyes. I tried to hide my uncertainty and disappointment. I really wanted to throw some mozzarella on it.

Unfortunately, the same slimy fate prevented me from eating more than a slice. When you’re used to the consistency of dairy cheese, it’s difficult to accept a non-dairy substitute. Even though vegan cheese looks like the real thing—it does the stringy #cheesepull Instagram foodies fawn over—the mouthfeel reminds you it’s a dupe. For people who don’t care about texture, you may be fine. For people like me, who are picky as hell about texture, you likely won’t be.

I certainly wasn’t enjoying the vegan cheese-topped options, so for my final three vegan pizza stops, I chose to explore the no-cheese route. I love marinara sauce, and I love crunchy crust, so I felt optimistic about this adventure. Brad and I headed to Pure Pizza in Plaza Midwood and DeSano Pizzeria Napoletana in Cherry before ending our journey at Zablong.

Pure Pizza was a welcome respite for this weary cheese-eater-gone-vegan. We chose the Pesto pie from the menu’s “Classic Pizza” offerings, removing the mozzarella. A “V” indicated this pizza could be vegan, even with the pesto (which usually includes Parmesan). Our server helped us decide and assured us it would be good—finally, a vegan-friendly atmosphere.

The pie from Pure came out, and I immediately conducted a mini photo shoot. This thing looked good. Fresh tomato chunks and red onion slices adorned it, all topped with a gorgeous green swirl of pesto. Crunch, crunch. We finished the 10-inch pizza within six minutes and agreed that it was strikingly tasty.

Pure’s pesto made an impact on us, because even when chomping into our later pizzas, Brad and I couldn’t stop wishing we had more of Pure’s pie instead.

Now here we are at Zablong, looking at each other before consuming the final vegan pie. Brad and I share a look of relief. Here we go. We can do it.

The table to our right is full of soccer fans at Courtyard Hooligans, clinking beers and shouting at the outdoor TVs. To our left, fellow pizza eaters dive into their meaty, cheesy pies. Then, the goat leaves the premises. I watch longingly as the cheese-making animal teases me for one last moment. Looking down at my pizza, I hope some goat cheese magically appears on it. Nothing happens, and it’s time to eat the red rectangle. Crunch, crunch. 

It’s fine. I just miss cheese.

Categories: Food + Drink, In Print