It’s an idea whose time has come. Over the last few years, our city has witnessed a proliferation of plant-based restaurants: Heirloom, The Acorn, The Wallflower, and most recently, MeeT and Nice Vice Ice Cream. Local faves like Cartems Donuterie and Earnest Ice Cream also offer vegan options.
Open since September 10, Virtuous Pie is Vancouver’s newest 100% plant-based pizza joint.* Located in a culinary hotbed on Main St (neighbours include Juniper, Juke, Bao Bei and The Keefer), Chef Jim Vesal says he hopes Virtuous Pie becomes “a super approachable gateway to vegan or plant-based eating.”
I interviewed Vesal and Lia Loukas, Director of Marketing, on a sunny Friday morning, less than a week after they opened, at their 583 Main St location. Both were overjoyed at the response so far, which includes daily lineups out the door.
The space is brand-new, but it’s designed to look like a more traditional Gastown space, with recessed arches and white-washed brick. The ceilings are open and industrial, showing white ductwork, contrasting with the shiny black counters. “We wanted to bring in elements of traditional Italian design, but in a more modern, warm way,” says Loukas of the design.
Seating is around communal “picnic” tables. There is seating for 25 currently, but a patio is in the works. It’s a great way to make new friends in a city that is often characterized as unfriendly, and the team noted that they have often witnessed people talking to strangers over a pie.
But what about the food? Well, this ain’t no Domino’s. The concept is fast casual. The food is upscale, more along the lines of what you’d find in an Italian restaurant, but served within six to eight minutes.
“We wanted something with a broad appeal, so we started with the food that everyone loves,” says Vesal, previously of Earl’s. “A lot of people associate vegan food with super healthy, super clean choices, but we wanted to offer something more like vegan ‘junk food.’ Many people are trying to eat more sustainable, in a more meaningful way, and we wanted to present it in a style that we knew would succeed anywhere.”
All the pies are vegan and there is the option for a gluten-free crust. Not surprisingly (this is Vancouver, after all,) they sell a very high percentage of the gluten free crusts.
“Every pizza is unique, no pizzas share the same toppings,” Vesal confesses, proud of his work, but acknowledging how much work it is. “All the ingredients have to be made in house, including the buffalo cauliflower, cheese, the falafel. In order for us to create food that was attractive to everyone, each pizza had to stand on its own, and it needed to be unique.”
And unique they are. The range of flavors span from very familiar to WTF?, starting with a traditional Margherita (tomato sauce, basil & cheese; the colours of the Italian flag), and ending with the Kim Jack-Il, which includes kimchi and gohujang-braised jackfruit (it’s spicy and delicious, by the way). In between, you’ll find such amusingly-named pies as “The Superfunghi” (potatoes, truffles and mushrooms), “Ultraviolet” (purple kale and caramelized onions), and my favourite, “Stranger Wings,” topped with buffalo cauliflower.
Vesal confirms that the menu will change seasonally, and that he specifically designed the menu with “a good mix of light pizzas and some that are more decadent and satisfying” in mind.
“Cheese is where we started,” Vesal states. “First thing we worked on, even before the crust. We made a conscious decision not to use Daiya (a locally-made commercially available non-dairy cheese made with tapioca starch). It’s not a simple process, it’s a labour of love and quite finicky. We hope that the effort we put into it shows.”
“It’s not going to mimic dairy cheese. Rather than thinking of our cheese as an imitation of a dairy cheese, we think of our cheese as another kind; another variety of cheese. We set out to make a product that was good and could stand on its own.”
There are three different kinds of cheeses you’ll find on a Virtuous Pie: a cashew mozzarella, an almond ricotta that’s traditionally cultured, and a tofu-based feta. Vesal is working on a goat-cheese for fall.
You’ll also find the application of the cheese is different here from your traditional take-and-bake. There’s less of it; it’s more of an accent than a melty white blanket.
“Everyone likes ice cream, right?” Vesal laughs, when I quiz him about why they added ice cream to the menu. “Having a dessert option was really important to us.” It turns out they were right. They can’t keep up with the demand, and Vesal has a team member doing nothing but churning ice cream 8 hours a day in the back.
The ice cream is a coconut cashew milk base, rounded out with some coconut oil to give it that fatty mouthfeel. There are rotating flavours, but they wanted to have decadent, addicting options, rather than the “healthier” ones. There’s a Hawaiian vanilla (beans supplied by a family friend’s farm), Peanut Butter Cookie, Coffee and Donuts (my ultimate favourite), and the shockingly-coloured, but surprisingly delicious Turmeric and Black Pepper.
There are also a couple of salads to choose from; a Greek Salad with quinoa and a potato salad with wild mushrooms. Everything here is sourced hyper local, including the drinks; there’s kombucha and Nitro cold brew on tap, as well as local beers, and Haywire Wine from the Okanagan.
Could Virtuous Pie be a “gateway drug” to a world of plant-based eating? Sure. But what’s more important is that they serve really delicious, beautifully crafted food, that just happens to be vegan.
Address: 583 Main Street, Vancouver
*Editor’s note: This article has been amended from its originally published text to indicate Virtuous Pie is not the first all-vegan pizza restaurant operating in Vancouver; Vegan Pizza House opened in 2011.