Volume 3:  

Welcome to the Melting Pot
"69th Street" (acrylic on canvas) by George H. Rothacker

It’s the eastern most edge of Delco, and Upper Darby is where west meets the Far East, and the north lives south of the border. This old borough is a mishmash of cultures, and quite frankly, a delicious one.

Upper Darby is home to folks from Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and who knows where else in Asia. And they sure can cook. The southern Americas are represented by Peruvians, Hondurans, Salvadoreans and Mexicans with various taquerias and bodegas to satisfy your sol. Get a taste of Africa in stores selling palm oil, hot sauces and CDs of lilting Congolese rumba that set spirits soaring.

This is a crossroads of the world, with travel agencies, nightclubs, beauty stores, day spas, food courts and groceries where English is a third language. And the shady sports bar with the Irish name has cricket on its TV. (But the tasty little hand-held cheeseburgers they serve are 100% USA.)

Let’s grab some chopsticks, tortillas, or smooth porcelain soup spoons and dig deeper into Destination Delco: Upper Darby. Oh, and definitely pack along a tote bag or two. There’s some seriously international shopping to do!

Now arriving, Terminal Square.

We get to Upper Darby’s international downtown just about any way we want. The big SEPTA terminal is one of the busiest multi-modal transit stations in the world. Light rail, trolley, subways, buses – you name it, you can ride it here.

We walk out into the sunlight over 69th Street, and are immediately greeted by an older gent with a hand-carved totem pole of a walking stick. “Hey there, welcome,” he says. “Hey there, hey there,” he repeats with a smile. “You shoulda seen it here back then.” He brandishes the totem toward a glorious example of art deco architecture, and what was one of the grandest shopping districts before King of Prussia was ever a gleam in a developer’s eye. And beyond that, the legendary Tower Theater, which still rocks like no place in Philly.

This is the beginning of Terminal Square, a big block of every ethnicity filling the storefronts. Inside the massive city structure is a whole other world of appetites and appliances. 

First stop: H Mart!

This place is easy to miss, but please don’t. We walk right past the front door the first time around. H Mart seems to fill the hollow inside Terminal Square with countless square footage of fresh food from all corners of the globe, and all depths of the ocean. It’s Whole Foods combined with a Hong Kong marketplace packed inside an Acme from another planet.

The H in H Mart is short for “Han Ah Reum,” which translates from the Korean to “An arm full of groceries.” Trust us, we need more than one arm to haul this bounty. The produce section is an encyclopedia of greens, melons, herbs and oddball squash we’ve never seen anywhere else. There are buckets of kimchee, the super-spicy fermented cabbage that’s the kick-butt cole slaw of Korea. And a little window where we order steamed barbecue pork buns for a buck.

A freezer section is chockablock with crab shumai, chicken pot stickers, pork dumplings, shrimp rolls, wontons and hand-drawn noodles to beat the band. We open the icebox and grab some from column “a” and some from column “b.”

Holy mackerel, look at this seafood section. All these bright-eyed fish are so fresh they seem to still have their sea legs. Tiger prawns, croakers, porgies, sea bass, flounder, tilefish and wild salmon. Squid and oysters and clams and fresh whelks. Whelks! (Think hermit crabs, only delicious.) All at low prices we can’t fathom.

Past the seafood are shelves full of bulgogi beef (marinated in Korean spices, ready for the grill) and prepared foods that let us take home a little Chinatown tonight. There are rows of teas of every color and boxes of noodles and curries and pepper sauces that have our eyes watering at the thought of them.

We giggle as we grab a jar of Thai pickled scallions, of all things, and dream

about Bangkok Gibsons for happy hour. We head past enormous sacks of every kind of rice (long-grain, brown, jasmine, broken, sweet and sticky and plain old white) and up the escalator to a hidden international food court.

Here, fast food from every corner of Asia is available for a couple of bucks and an adventurous appetite. Thank goodness the menus are like beautiful backlit food porn, as we can’t read much of the language. We point and chew and grin.

Around the corner are stores selling kimchee pots (gorgeous, ceramics, perfect for geraniums if you’re not fermenting cabbage and peppers), lacquered chopsticks, beautiful linens and tableware, rice steamers and every manner of kitchen tool appliance. Hard to believe we’re up on the top floor, as everything’s at bargain-basement prices. We trick out our kitchen, dining room and patio for peanuts.

From one continent to another.

H Mart is mind-blowing, simply stated. We can use a breather and a change of pace – and place. Let’s take a stroll around the corner, past one Salvadorean and Honduran, two Vietnamese, one Thai and two Mexican restaurants (along the way are three Karaoke nightclubs, several relaxed little nail parlors and a Korean barbecue joint), and fall into Inka Wall, a little piece of South America here in Delco.

This cozy Peruvian comedor is owned, operated and cheffed by wondrous Beatrice Loayza. With her son Cody manning the front of the house, Bea opened Inka Wall just a few weeks back. But it’s been on her mind since leaving her native country years ago. 

She’s from Cusco, the capital of the Incas, whose empire was once larger and more influential than the Romans’. Her décor includes homage to the ancient stone Inca walls that fortify Cusco to this day. We tuck into Bea’s homemade

Escabeche Chicken, an old family recipe that combines fresh veggies in a secret-recipe tomato sauce. “It has it’s own unforgettable flavor, and each taste must lead to the next,” warns Bea. She’s right; we can’t stop ourselves. Homemade sweet potato fries (“Everything from scratch in my kitchen; the only way.”) are the perfect side.

Everything with a dash or three of hot rocoto pepper salsa. “Incas have been eating rocoto peppers for thousands of years,” Bea tells us. “They keep our mind clear.” They keep our eyes open, that’s for sure. Wow.

The taste of freedom

As we walk around the block, we do the stroll past Val Shively’s legendary R&B Records. This place is to the gills with tens of thousands of rare jazz, R&B and doo-wop vinyl. Largely a mail-order business, the front door sports a warning: “Absolutely No Browsing,” and “No Idiots.” So naturally, we keep moving.

A few doors up we meet Edward and Nancy Ngyuen, who lit up Little Saigon’s neon sign about 25 years ago. The story of their homespun Vietnamese restaurant is fascinating, but it’s their personal biography that grips us. It’s a tale with a heart of darkness, and an escape to the light.

Best of all, we hear their story over cups of steaming tea, bright summer shrimp rolls, bowls of bánh tầm bì– squiggly rice noodles with sweet coconut milk, tender pork, ground peanuts and sparkling cilantro – and a tureen of fresh crab and tomato soup.

When Edward was young, his father Duong was an influential figure in the South Vietnamese Army, and worked side-by-side with legendary US General Alexander Haig. Edward’s mother cooked for soldiers, neighbors, local business people. “Seems I was always in restaurant business,” Edward says. “I ran home from school every day to help with cooking and delivery.” His father was killed in an ambush in 1970. It was a struggle to keep it going at home. Life was even harder after the war. The new communist government had no love lost for people associated with the South Vietnamese army – especially if they were close at all to the Americans. The bright spot for Edward was meeting Nancy, and they were soon married.

It was impossible for either of them to find work. “They knew who we were, and watched us all the time,” says Edward, involuntarily lowering his voice whenever he mentions the communists. Makes us wanna look over our shoulder; gives us the creeps.

“Second-class citizens in our own country! So we have to escape. We have to do it to live.” Edward and Nancy find their way to an overcrowded fishing boat. Built for 100 or so, 379 hopeful souls pack the vessel and head for better shores. They christen the boat the VT 75. VT for Vung Tau, their seaside hometown.

The journey is hell, and not everyone makes it alive. Edward and Nancy land in Indonesia, and after many weeks, finally in Upper Darby. “We got off that boat and felt born again,” says Edward, his eyes wet with reminiscence.

Nancy breaks the spell with a plate of char-grilled beef, tender and delicious, on crunchy “broken” rice. And then hands over our favorite, bún bò Huế, her spicy beef noodle soup slick and red with hot chili oil. 

76 different languages and countless amazing stories

Someone tells us that 76 different languages are spoken in the borough of Upper Darby. There are nearly that many different menus just around Terminal Square! But what gets us most is that inside every restaurant, every nail salon, gift shop, bodega and karaoke bar, is a story not unlike Edward and Nancy Ngyuen’s. It’s the story of America, waiting to be shared and sampled right here in Destination Delco.

Where to eat, what to get:

H Mart (International Supermarket)
7050 Terminal Square

Bring your tote bags for the amazing produce and your cooler for the freshest fish department you’ve seen in a long time. We’ll be in the food court upstairs, wolfing down steamed barbecue buns.

El Cuscatleco (Salvadorean, Honduran and Mexican)

29 Garret Road

We love the Salvadorean pupusas -  thick hand-made corn tortillas with cheesy goodness. And the Carne Asada is a steak lover’s entrée.

Moo Jin Jang (Korean)
6443 Market Street

No matter what you order, it comes with a huge smattering of little appies, including kimchee, deviled egg, spicy cucumber and something we could never identify that was really tasty. Make sure someone at the table orders the boolgogi beef.

Sa Bai Dee (Thai and Laotian)
7038 Terminal Square

Bypass the Pad Thai, which you can get anywhere. Go for the spicy Laotian noodle dishes. We let our waitress make all the recommendations for us.

Inka Wall (Peruvian)
57 Garrett Road

The roast chicken gets a 10 on Yelp; nuff said. And the rice pudding’s to die for. Tell Bea and Cody we sent you.

Little Saigon (Vietnamese)
113 Fairfield Avenue

TripAdvisor.com says it’s the No. 1 restaurant in Upper Darby. We love the soups and noodle dishes. And don't even get us started about the summer rolls.

Messiah People’s Grocery Store
6700 Market Street

The hot sauces from Ghana we buy here are another great excuse for keeping plenty of cold beer on hand. And the rumba CDs from Zaire and Congo make sure we groove all the way home.

Val Shively’s R & B Records
49 Garrett Road

There’s no other record store like it in the US. But when we don’t walk in ready to ask for that rare B-side by The Jaguars on Aardell Records, they don’t make us feel so welcome. It’s good to be independent.