Vegans are a minority, but they make a lot of noise. That's one reason you've probably heard of Blackbird, the 100-percent vegan pizza shop run by Mark Mebus and Ryan Moylan. Eaters who eschew animal products but still crave cheesy slices have been flocking here since October for Daiya-cheese-dusted pies, seitan cheesesteaks and barbecue portobello sandwiches.
Unlike tofu-based cheeses, Daiya's tapioca/arrow root/vegetable oil combo actually melts, making it ideal for vegan pizza-making. The look of the stuff is plausible, and it does add a layer of texture to Mebus' crisp-bottomed, airy pies — but this omnivore would never willingly choose it over real mozzarella.
Enjoyment of these alternative slices, then, hinges on one's personal appreciation of Daiya. Among Blackbird's most successful pizza varieties are the Daiya- and garlic "butter"-dressed Fungi slice, lavished with a field of crimini and white mushrooms and thyme; and the Haymaker, with more garlic butter (roasted garlic, Earth Balance, shallots), Upton's crumbled seitan sausage, oregano and Mebus' bright tomato sauce. Eggplant and broccoli rabe cooked to an ideal al dente bite, plus more spicy seitan, added authentic flavor to the South Philly slice, though the advertised fennel was undetectable.
Only the Nacho didn't live up to expectations. Thickly glazed with cheddar-style Daiya, even caramelized onions and sliced jalapenos couldn't rescue the slice from blandness, while the presence of avocado served only to remind me why they're rarely seen on pizza — they turn slimy when subjected to searing oven heat.
Mebus turns his bag of vegan kitchen tricks loose on Blackbird's sandwich list. Thin-sliced seitan, tarted up with mushrooms, grilled onions and green peppers, cradle enough Daiya to fuse into an appealing goo — just like a real cheesesteak. Cornmeal-crusted slices of fried portobello come layered with homemade barbecue sauce and crunchy cabbage/carrot slaw zinged up with apple-cider vinegar. The marinated-tofu Cubano melds chewy baked soy protein with Upton's Naturals hot pepperoni, Dijon aioli, pickles, white Daiya and caramelized onions in a smoky approximation of the mother sandwich.
But while Mebus' command of vegan cooking is excellent, the flavors he works so hard to create for his sandwiches are suffocated inside Baker Street Bread Co. rolls, which manage to be tough but not crusty. And since the primary proteins here are starch-derived (seitan is wheat gluten), the sandwiches can come off overly carb-y.
Blackbird's tastiest bites showcase whole foods, rather than multiple-ingredient facsimiles. Topped with razor-thin slices of potato that add heft and crunch, the rosemary- and sea-salt-flecked Yukon is the best slice in the house. And at just $13 for a 16-inch pie, it's also a hell of a deal. (Over four visits, the pie was twice golden and gorgeous ... and twice grayish and overly greasy.) Paired with the entrée-size salad of earthy roasted mushrooms, baby spinach, shaved raw fennel and vegan Dijon, you can have an ideal meal no matter where you stand on the moral implications of butter.
Blackbird Pizzeria | 507 S. Sixth St., 215-625-6660, blackbirdpizzeria.com. Open Tue.-Sat. (and Mon., beginning mid-Jan.), 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Pizza, $2.50-$19; sandwiches, $7-$8; salads, $7-$7.50; sides, $3-$4.