Greenpoint’s Champs Jr.—the pint-sized offspring to the vegan diner on Meserole—may not have been long for this world, but now, Screamer’s, a vegan-only New York style pizza by the slice joint has replaced it. And given how much New Yorkers love their pizza, especially the thin, foldable, grab-and-go kind, and that Screamer’s is the city’s first dedicated vegan-only slice shop, this team is hoping for a longer stay on Manhattan Avenue than its predecessor. Yesterday was Screamer’s grand opening; but last weekend they conducted a three-day soft open, so we stopped in to take a look and eat a vegan slice.
Brad Baker, co-owner of Champs, along with Chef Mark Mebus (of vegan Blackbird Pizzeria in Philadelphia) and Ryan Moylan are behind Screamer’s, and Baker and Mebus were on site on Sunday, while, just a block away, thousands of people were lining up around McCarren Park to see Brian Wilson perform Pet Sounds.
“Champs Jr. wasn’t doing the business, so we wanted something different,” Baker said, sitting at a corner table in Screamer’s. It currently looks much the same as Champs Jr., minus the counter and stools. The renovation was a swift one. Mebus added, “There are not any New York, vegan-dedicated pizza slice places. Vinnie’s offers it, and Two Boots, but there is no place that is just a vegan pizza by the slice.” Baker said they did not really tell anyone they were doing the soft open; they wanted to get comfortable with the new space and business at a leisurely pace. On Sunday, a woman sat happily chomping down on a slice, and a few customers strolled happily in and out for a quick bite.
Mebus, who is also behind a seitan meat company that Baker has used for Champs, created menu. “I’ve been vegan for 17 years,” Mebus says. “For me it’s 100 percent for ethical reasons. I got into it through animal rights and I had been into the hardcore music scene, and that was kind of how I got brought into the world of vegan pizza.” Mebus still lives in Philadelphia, where Blackbird Pizzeria is located, and does a two and a half hour commute to his new job. There are salads and calzones on the menu, in addition to the pizzas, which span the classic to the complex.
On Sunday, written in marker on the wall-length mirror, there was the Supreme (seitan pepperoni and sausage, bell peppers, onion, tomato sauce and vegan cheese), the Hawaiian (vegan ham, pineapple, red onion, sauce and cheese), White (garlic, vegan cheese, almond ricotta, broccoli rabe, caramelized onions), a Sicilian pie, and the Screamer (garlic oil, vegan cheese, cremini and oyster mushrooms, parsley, and almond parmesan).
Baker and Mebus suggested I taste the Clean Slide, however, which had so far been their most popular slice. It came with pesto, broccoli rabe, vegan cheese, seitan sausage, sesame seeds and tomato sauce. Not that I was skeptical, but I am a meat eater, and hadn’t previously eaten a vegan slice. “Quite a bit of the majority of our clientele in Philly are not vegetarian,” Mebus assured me. “Most of the time, people really care about something being good, and don’t care if it’s vegan, or this or that. They’re just looking for something that tastes good and a little different and I think the public has come around to it being a another option, not better or worse.”
I hefted a Clean Slide to my mouth for a bite—and I do mean hefted. This slice is substantial, what with its veggies and cheese and quite thick sauce. It required a fold, as the thin crust buckled beneath the weight of its toppings. But the effort paid off: this pie was savory. And the sauce, especially, stood out. It was intense, with a multi-dimensional tangy kick. “The red sauce we use on top of the pie sort of dehydrates a little more and intensifies it,” Mebus tells me. “It’s really just two different types of tomatoes and then a little bit of olive oil and basil and sherry vinegar makes it pop a little.”
At that point, Baker hears us discussing my experience, and comes over to add, “The sauce is on point,” he says with feeling, and then repeats, “On point.” I told them I was a pretty voracious meat eater, but would totally come in here for a meal. Mebus and Baker, both of whom are long time vegans, looked very pleased to hear this.
“I’m so excited,” said Baker. “I love pizza—I worked in pizza for a long time before coming to New York, and I’m just excited to be back making pizza again.” Mebus joined in, “I was pretty excited because people here care more about pizza than in Philly. [New York] is a flat-out pizza town; in Philly they care more about sandwiches,” which I could not disagree with after my one very intense late night experience in Philadelphia trying to order a Philly Cheesesteak. I was nearly laughed out of line trying to defend a friend who ordered it “the wrong way.” So, again, I understood.
And what about the name? “We were throwing out a bunch of names. It’s a pizza slang term for mushrooms,” Baker explained. “When canned mushrooms hit the stove, all the water evaporates so they scream. We felt like it was an easy thing for people to remember.”
‘Yeah, it’s real weird, but it really works,” I told them, which they had a hearty laugh at. But it was true, I told them, I remembered it. And it encapsulates what they’re doing: something classic, with an unexpected twist. Vegan or no, Screamer’s does the trick if you’re hankering for a slice.
Screamer’s: 620 Manhattan Avenue, Greenpoint