Go West, young vegan!

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GRAND MA FLAT with arugula pesto // fire roasted tomato // mutzzarella, a vegan treat from TASTE in Phoenixville.

Philly's vegan scene keeps growing, with a couple more big-name openings right around the corner, and we can be both proud and grateful to have so many animal-free possibilities here in town. Meanwhile, though, the Western suburbs are also stepping up their game with new offerings and new venues that are definitely worth a quick trip or two.

That's why I was out in Malvern at the Greyhound Cafe (Great Valley Shopping Center, 81 Lancaster Ave, Malvern; 610-240-0222) recently, trying a few of the full slate of offerings in this crisp, casual joint focusing on easy-to-love comfort foods like nachos, pizza, burgers and chicken-and-waffle platters with fries.

Joseph Solar explained that after decades running restaurants in Texas and elsewhere he was ready to retire, but went vegan about a year and a half ago at the behest of his step-daughter and started working out vegan versions of some of his favorite foods. The more vegan food he ate, he told me, "the better I felt," and he soon endeavored to spread the word in the form of approachable vegan dishes, opening the cafe earlier this year.

"I didn't miss anything that I used to eat," he told me,  then laughingly added, "except for smoked whitefish on a bagel. So I created a vegan version of that, and added it to our menu."

As I sampled the breaded cauliflower that stands in for chicken along with the waffles, Solar explained how the latter were enriched with black beans and other savory nutrients - "it's not the basic waffle you get at a lot of places." He observed that all the food components like the waffles in Greyhound's dishes are "made fresh right here."

Solar said he opened Greyhound not so much to serve vegans but mainly to raise awareness among meat-eaters, "make people see there's more to this lifestyle - it's not a diet, but a lifestyle," he underscored. To that end, Greyhound is doing a benefit night this Thursday, June 15, with a portion of all proceeds donated to The Humane League, and is in the final stages of planning a July event for Luv-N-Bunns Rabbit Rescue.

Just up Route 29 in Phoenixville, right in the middle of town across from the Colonial Theatre, Sand Castle Winery has opened a different kind of vegan venue, helmed by executive chef Theo Charitos. Overhauling its retail wine-and-snacks shop, Sand Castle in May launched Taste, (236 Bridge St, Phoenixville; 484- 924-9530) an upscale vegan destination reminiscent of the former Horizons Cafe up in Willow Grove. Of course one key difference is that that venue was BYOB, whereas at Taste wine (yes, vegan!) is not only plentiful, but dominates the decor, with more than 200 bottles arrayed on one wall, and I dutifully sampled the menu accompanied by a smooth 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Seasonal Olives and Crispy Chickpeas with sweet Sriracha were great starters, and the Pickled and Marinated Veggies provided a nice contrast, though the pickles could maybe have had a more forceful tang. I enjoyed the Portugese Chicken & Sausage (both Taste and Greyhound use unmarked and unaltered animal-food names for menu items) with black bean kake and braised baby kale. The kale especially was excellent, retaining just enough of its hard-green flavor to complement the sweet, mellow sauce. Likewise the Alpine Spice Spiced Sundae had a nice cinnamon/wine balance with the vegan vanilla ice cream.

Taste is more audacious than most vegan places in its appropriation of animal dishes and their names, with such offerings as a "Blackened Ribeye" and "Char Grilled Filet / Tenderloin" which come close to their namesakes while carving out an identity as vegan entrees (of course this practice is a double-edged sword, raising more definite expectations - the ribeye could have been more dense and chewy, for instance, but I quibble).

This meat-based boasting ties in with Taste's sourcing from Herbivorous Butcher, a Minneapolis-based food firm that has rocketed to vegan stardom with "small batch, made fresh by hand" cuts of seitan, along with vegan cheeses, for just these purposes. They have a wide variety of vegan meats, some with more versimilitude than others, but it's a good bet the early adoption of this hot new source will help distinguish Taste's cuisine around the Delaware Valley and within the growing crowd of vegan eateries. (The owners foresee more Philly vegan TASTE locations by the end of this year.)

As it happened, upon arrival at Taste I almost literally ran into Char Nolan, who happened to be checking the place out as well if not better, and as she's already committed her thoughts to the internet, you can get another angle on the menu here.

Also in Phoenixville (6 Gay St; 610-616-0000) is the second location for Vincent "Vinny" DePaul's Gangster Vegan Organics (the OGV is in Norristown), appealing both to health-and-spirituality-focused raw foodies and fun-loving impudent kids, plus anyone in the area who's looking to expand their vegan palate. And West Chester foodies are already salivating over July's expected opening of Love Again Local, an all-vegan sandwich shop that looks very intriguing.

Also, let's not forget that in the same strip mall as Greyhound is the venerable Su Tao, (Great Valley Shopping Center, 981 Lancaster Ave, Malvern; 610-651-8886) known and loved for pan-Asian vegan buffets and vegan celebrations for many years.

This is not, of course, to overlook the growing number of suburban non-vegan joints adding their own signature vegan items to menus, a trend noted in a 2013 V for Veg column. I mentioned some faves like Woodlyn's Frankie's on Fairview (604 Fairview Rd, Woodlyn; 610) 543-2300) in my 2016 Eating Vegan in Philly guidebook, but I'm finding more all the time, such as the Nova Mediterranean Grill (815 Lancaster Ave, Villanova; 610-525-4745), which among other plant-based treats offers a Vegan Seitan Gyro with Roasted Eggplant Spread, Hummus, Piaz Beans & Tahini as well as the now expected traditional vegan cheesesteak (both with Michael's Seitan).

With the weather dramatically warming up it's a great time to explore beyond city limits, or maybe even your own limits, and sample some of the newest vegan-friendly creations out there. You'll get a sense of where cuisine is headed, a full belly of tasty food, and a chance to help Philly's legendary vegan scene grow even larger!