This is a guest written article by Transport Delco, an Upper Darby Township native who has been active in transportation causes in Philadelphia and New England for the past decade.
As an Upper Darby native, I am surprised at how few people know about the food mecca that is my hometown. None other than @Lennibug (a must follow on Twitter) describes Upper Darby as the best place for food in Philadelphia. These are fighting words. Upper Darby Township is a suburban municipality of just under 100,000 people and it is decidedly not part of Philadelphia County. I wouldn’t blame you if you thought so.
At the terminus of four of the region’s rail lines is Upper Darby’s downtown; Terminal Square is one of the densest and most walkable places in the United States. It is also proudly home to people speaking sixty different languages. With a foreign-born population near NYC levels, that means a lot of good food, all within one of the Philly region’s most distinctive Art Deco districts. I will explore a tiny sliver of the massive food scene. If you stick with me to the end, I’ll talk about how Upper Darby can use its transit-oriented location to solve some local problems and make that restaurant experience even better.
Inexpensive Eats Abound in Upper Darby
Cafe Anh Hong
Cafe Anh Hong is located at 7036 Terminal Square.
I asked one of the owners what Anh Hong means in Vietnamese because I speak a smattering of Mandarin and knew that Hòng (红）means “red.” She informed me that it means “pink.”
Anh Hong is closed Wednesdays. As any Upper Darby native knows, “On Wednesdays we wear pink.” I have never seen Tina Fey in the same room as the owners, which is very suspicious.
One indication that Anh Hong has excellent Vietnamese food is that many customers are always speaking Vietnamese there. Still, like anywhere in Upper Darby, you also happily find everybody else. One night while eating there, a customer explained to one of the owners that “En mi pais, we call this sopa de vaca.” The owner, deeply interested, asked him what he called shrimp, and he informed her that shrimp is camarón.
“Sopa de camarón.” She said, half to him and half to herself.
He paid and left; a few minutes later, an adorable little girl and her father came in, and she was talking to him animatedly about what kind of comida she was going to get.
“You’re going to learn a lot of Spanish today.”
“Yes,” she said.
None of the food you’ll encounter in Upper Darby is a white table cloth affair, but it’s all delicious, inexpensive, and often very beautifully presented I took the photos for this piece on my cracked-screen older generation iPad, but the beautiful presentation of Anh Hong’s #8 and #27 (which I think of as a “perfect cube” special) is apparent. Hot tea comes with every meal, but there are smoothies, boba tea, and espresso drinks on order if you don’t like that.
Tofu on Vermicelli (#27): a vegetarian noodle dish with tofu, mushrooms, peanuts, broccoli, carrots, onion, garlic, and a delicious sauce. The broccoli is sautéed in something salty and fatty that makes me feel like I’ve never properly experienced a cruciferous vegetable before.
Vegetarian Summer Rolls (#8): Shrimp, chicken, and pork (or camarón, pollo, y cerdo, if you will) are also available.
If you’re hungrier, there’s always pho, served with heaping piles of bean sprouts, jalepeños, Thai basil, and lime. I also like the hot oil, but I didn’t want to ruin the beautiful presentation.
Anh Hong is cheap. Each of these enormous meals with the appetizer and tea comes to $17. Not pictured is another favorite of mine, the banh mi. Two banh mi, an appetizer, and a pot of hot tea also run the same price, and as a hungry 6’5” bicyclist, you really can’t beat that anywhere. Anh Hong is a BYOB.
One of the nice things about Terminal Square is how many things you can access in one place with a simple bus or train trip. Although I work and have family in Upper Darby, I live in Overbrook, and it’s a fifteen-minute bike ride to Terminal Square. The parking meters out front not only means there’s a good place to lock your bike, but they also mean if you decide to drive, there will almost always be a spot available out front. While parking fills up, there are almost always a few spaces free. There are also additional pay lots across the street and down the street. More on that later.
A newbie customer came in once, complaining that “there’s no parking.” Sitting in my usual place near the front window, I observed that the parking lot across the street had a couple of dozen spots available. What this lady meant was that there was no free parking. But parking is valuable land, and what makes Anh Hong a special place to be is that it is nestled snuggled next to the trolleys and trains and surrounded by other good restaurants.
And of course, when you get “free” parking at a strip mall, you still pay for it, just in the prices of the food, The paid parking is a quiet blessing to people without cars, or even people with cars who take the bus now and then, because on the other side of the equation you get blueberry and raspberry prices like this:
Upper Darby’s Terminal Square: a delicious answer to inflation!
Jian Korean is above the HMart at 7050 Terminal Square (also where the cheap berries live!). HMart is just a few doors west of Anh Hong (you have to pass another Korean barbeque place and a new ice cream shop to get there, so good luck). Jian is in a food court style arrangement next to a sushi bar, two Chinese-Korean fusion spots, an ice cream shop (yes, another ice cream shop…) and a boba tea place (which also sells ice cream. A lot of ice cream…).
The food at Jian is so cheap it makes cooking seem like a waste of money, but it’s also exquisitely delicious. You may be used to scallion pancakes as an appetizer. Not here. This #44 (scallion and seafood pancake) has mussels, shrimp, and squid in between a crispy egg-battered, green onion-filled disk of deliciousness, and is big enough for two to have it as a meal at only $11.
The #20, called “Bursot Dulsot” or “vegetable hotpot” has specialty mushrooms I don’t know the names of mixed with carrots, onions, greens, seaweed, peppers, and more normal mushroom types like button mushrooms. It comes with two pickle items and a small cup of miso soup. The miso is hard to photograph! It comes chock full of tofu and seaweed, but trying to animate it to the surface to get a decent photo is hard!
Each of these dishes is $11, which makes you wonder how they turn a profit. A shadow inflation has been that the proportion of specialty to button mushrooms has gotten slightly less favorable as prices have changed, but even with that it’s a crazy good deal.
A fun thing about Jian is you don’t always know what the side will be. One week there were boiled peanuts in molasses, another week it was radish kim chi that was new as a side. Then another week sweet potatoes appeared. It’s a rotating wheel of good eats.
The service at Jian, like Anh Hong, is amiable, especially if you become a regular. Be aware that Jian and the other HMart food court businesses do not allow alcohol on the premises.
As you might have noticed, my photo setup is nothing sophisticated, but New Punjabi produces good photos even for me. Situated at 6936 Ludlow Street in a small shop dotted with potted plants and checkered tiles, New Punjabi’s windows open up to the sunset and give you the magic light effect.
I ordered the matar paneer full of fresh ginger, cilantro, cardamom and fennel seeds, and other spices. If you ask for spicy, be warned! This is no University City buffet. It’s the real thing!
The whole meal: main entrees run $11, and I forget all the individual prices for everything else, but with this giant spread and a huge tip I only paid $20.
With everything I ordered that day and a tip well above 20%, I walked away having spent only $20, which is how much you’d lay down for inferior food at a buffet. That included a giant garlic naan (regular naan is even cheaper), a salty lassi, a small side salad, and the matar paneer itself. Truly a bargain! And all of fifty feet from 69th Street Terminal.
I caught a whiff of what was at the table across from me and snapped this. These chicken kabobs were sizzling loudly enough to drown out the Urdu commercials.
New Punjabi is often emptier than the other two restaurants, which is a crime. The best Indian food I’ve ever had isn’t Indian, it’s Pakistani, and the best neighborhood for it isn’t West Philly or Center City, it’s Upper Darby.
New Punjab is Halal and does not serve alcohol.
I Never Get What I Want for Christmas, Charlie Brown
At Transport Delco, we’re excited about seeing Delaware County lead the change to become climate-ready, and parking can be a significant obstacle to that. One thing that inspired me to review these restaurants is that it is clear to me their bread and butter is local foot traffic, biking, and transit, and that more housing, better transit, and safer biking would only augment that. But it’s not always evident that this is the case. Research indicates that shop owners overestimate the importance of parking, especially free parking, in their success, partly because they are more likely to drive than their customers.
But elected leaders seem clueless about this too.
For the Christmas tree lighting this year, several elected officials lined up for a ribbon-cutting for “Municipal Parking Lot 1.”
Note the lack of paying customers. It’s all politicians, even though earlier this year Barbarann Keffer’s administration executed a very successful street closing of the Five Points intersection this lot is located and people bustled to the area for the outdoor experience.
I didn’t even get to visit the pupuseria around the corner for this piece, but we did an unscientific poll, and pupusas and much more popular than surface parking. Unscientific as it is, this poll has more voices than there were cars in Municipal Lot 1 the night of the tree lighting.
In fairness, Upper Darby does do a lot of parking stuff right. Earlier this year, when working to bring a new, walkable, transit-oriented community center to Stonehurst, the neighborhood nearest the Terminal, Mayor Barbarann Keffer showed admirable backbone against parking concerns, as highlighted by Inga Saffron in her great Inquirer piece. If only Philly had such backbone! I asked a friend whether he thought Philadelphia might someday expand to include Upper Darby and he joked that Upper Darby should expand to include Philly. The parking at Muncipal Lot 1 has new credit card-ready payment options and is even outfitted with some new EV chargers. The Township also upgraded sidewalks, ADA crossings, and trees. All in all, a competent job.
But the question this side steps is whether parking is really the best use of that land. Municipal Lot 1 and its even bigger sibling down the street take up about two acres of land combined. In that space, a lot of new restaurants, apartments, or public buildings could be housed! And that means built in customers, the kind of customers who are actually keeping Terminal Square lively.
I’m not certain the official name of this is Municipal Lot 2, but I’m calling it Municipal Parking Crater 2.
People do park in those lots, but not the way they do directly out front. And once you venture more than a block from HMart, the street parking is mostly empty. Without these lots there would still be plenty of places for people in cars to arrive.
Upper Darby for some reason has no streeteries, while more suburban locations like Media, PA seem to be on top of it. Media has a trolley and Regional Rail to help it, but Upper Darby has that trolley plus two more, a couple dozen buses, and the El, which is the busiest transit line in the region. Why is Upper Darby Township falling behind in the Streetery Competition?
The Community Connection (And More Ice Cream Talk…)
Even sadder is the fact that Upper Darby’s densest and least affluent elementary school catchments, Charles Kelly and Walter Senkow, have to bus their kids to schools far from their homes (the Charles Kelly site is deep in the Garrettford catchment, while Senkow is in the former location of St. George’s E.S. in Glendolden).
Each of the catchments comes right up to Municipal Crater #2. That means if the School District wanted to build a school that kids could walk to, the perfect location has been staring them in the face. All this busing is bad for kids social, physical, and mental health, and costs the School District a lot of money, while walking and biking to school are free and come with considerable benefits to students’ well-being.
The busing arrangement Kelly and Senkow students face is one Aronimink parents, in a more white and affluent part of the township, would never accept.