Road Trip: CoCo’s Cupcake Cafe in Pittsburgh!  »

Update, June 27, 2010: Coco’s has closed.

Because it’s National Cupcake Day (and Thursday is National Roast Suckling Pig Day, ugh, let us not take this ridiculousness too seriously), here is a second cupcake review.  CoCo’s Cupcakes Cafe is Pittsburgh’s “first cupcake bakery,” having opened one week earlier than Dozen Cupcakes in December of 2006. Like Dozen, CoCo’s uses local sources for things like coffee and chocolate, and is located in one of the schmancier of Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods: CoCo’s is in Shadyside, near a yoga studio and a Whole Foods. Adorably, CoCo’s makes neighborhood-themed cupcakes, such as this vegan margarita South Side cupcake: It certainly is pretty, isn’t it?

CoCo’s offers at least one vegan cupcake every day; when we went, they had gingerbread and red velvet. The red velvet is their daily vegan cupcake, and has what is described as vanilla frosting and a few delicate red sugar sprinkles. It was very good-looking as well, and the frosting was piled incredibly high. Although I am not the sort to just bite into a cupcake like it’s a piece of sushi (I prefer cupcake deconstruction), I had to see if I could fit the whole thing in my mouth (THAT’S WHAT SHE SAID); it worked, but I ended up with frosting in my nose, and it lacked the feeling of supreme accomplishment I had expected to feel.

Right, fine, but what about the cupcake? Well, the cake was pretty good; too dense, but definitely worth finishing, and the flavor was nice. The frosting was texturally pleasing, and there certainly was enough of it to make me, a preferrer of frosting, satisfied with the ratio of it to cake; however, the taste wasn’t there. It was as if the person making it had forgotten to include the vanilla, because it just didn’t taste like anything. It was not a buttercream, that’s for sure.

Don’t get me wrong, I ate the whole thing! I kept waiting for it to taste better, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. Luckily, we still had the special gingerbread cupcakes for dessert, so CoCo’s still had time to redeem its vegan baking skills. There’s always hope.

The gingerbread cake was equally dense, though with a more complex flavor, and really resembled actual gingerbread more than any delicate cupcake. The frosting, again, was disappointing flavorless, and again they don’t advertise it as a buttercream, so I’m still confused — what is it supposed to taste like? What is a thick vanilla frosting that is not a buttercream? Is it a shortening-only frosting? A shortening-only frosting would give great hold and allow for amazing staying power when a frosting has to battle both cold and heat, but it would also have to derive its taste from its other ingredients, as shortening has no flavor. If this is the case—and of course this is conjecture based on my own baking knowledge—then CoCo’s should really look into adding a lot more vanilla extract, because frosting that tastes like “sweet” is kind of a waste of space.

If I were in need of a cupcake in Pittsburgh again and unable or unwilling to make them myself (pardon the egoism, but I can bake better vegan cupcakes than these places), I would go to CoCo’s again, if only for the variety. Maybe their other vegan cupcakes have more flavorful frostings — we did get two cupcakes with the same disappointing flavor — and maybe next time they’ll have improved their technique. You never know! Besides, CoCo’s doesn’t have too many improvements to make to achieving a vegan cupcake worth our accolades. Furthermore the pickings are a bit slim in Pittsburgh (you can always complain about your surroundings! Once I went to a restaurant in Southeast Texas where the only vegan item on the menu was “two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for $1.50,” and I complained because the peanut butter was creamy and the wheat bread had whey so I had to get white. Always! Complain!), so as usual, vegans will have to learn to do it at home, or take what’s available on the outside. At CoCo’s, happily, what’s available is pretty all right. Not the best, but I bet with some helpful community feedback, they’ll get there.

[margarita and gingerbread photos via Cupcakefetish; red velvet photo by Joel]

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