Most people—most sane, rational people who don’t regularly slap on the metaphoric pith helmet to go spelunking through alien neighborhoods for roast duck and tacos on a Saturday night basically think of two things when they think of Upper Darby: the Tower Theater and crime. Both are there, it’s true. You know what, though? You can get shot in the face anywhere. But you can’t get a round-the-world, 10-block Japanese/Korean/Vietnamese/Mexican/Peruvian roast chicken mash-up anywhere but Upper Darby.
Just across from the last westbound stop of the Market Frankford Line (69th Street) sits a complex of shops and restaurants that houses most of what you’re in search of. For cheap Vietnamese dishes like pho, bun and bahn mi hoagies, hit Ang Hong Pho & Cafe. Down the block, you’ll see the entrance to a sprawling H-Mart supermarket, which is great for fresh fish, Asian pantry items (kimchi!), and freaky-cool candies that will make you want to renounce your citizenship and hop the first available flight to Tokyo.
But the real star in this neighborhood (and what makes it a hot destination for those who know how to eat the heart out of any half-hidden cuisine) is one escalator ride up from the market: an Asian food court, with some 20 vendors offering everything from Korean bulgogi to sushi to Chinese noodles. Go nuts. Go hungry. Go back again and again. And when you’re done, go back downstairs, turn the corner outside, and rock out with plates of killer Szechuan dumplings at the appropriately named Dumpling House.
Leaving Asia, turn the corner one more time and find two taqueria-style Mexican joints. First, there’s table-made guacamole at Don Memo (57 Garrett Road, 610-352-2376), where you should go if you brought a six-pack or just happen to be (wisely) carrying a bottle of tequila around with you. The house will provide the fresh margarita mix. And then there’s Sabor Latino, which offers a full bar, free chips with sharp salsa verde, and bargain-basement daily specials like $9 carne asada platters.
For one last hit of foreign latitudes, grab some wheels (steal them if you have to; it is Upper Darby, after all) and head for Barbacoa for the roast chicken. The birds here are brined for 12 hours before they’re slow-roasted over an open fire. They say it’s Peruvian-style. We just say it’s damn good.
The future of Upper Darby restaurants: The H-Mart food court represents the closest thing we have in Philly to that Holy Grail of street-food fanatics: the hawker center. So what Upper Darby needs is more of these: areas where taco trucks and yakitori shacks, dumpling stands and five-seat sushi bars can exist side-by-side, feeding fresh, cheap food to both the immigrant neighbors and the passport set.