Craig LaBan’s Best of the ’burbs

Delaware County’s Top Restaurants​

 
Media
 
Upper Darby
 
Folsom to Chadds Ford
See Craig LaBan's Top 25 Suburban Favorites
Mapping where to eat and drink in Delaware County
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Superior
Rare, sets regional dining standards.
Excellent
Special, excels in most every category of the dining experience.
Very Good
Interesting, with above-average food.
Hit-or-miss
Too inconsistent for a strong recommendation.
Folsom to Chadds Ford
Delco's blue-collar spirit keeps old-school favorites alive, from a burger joint to a classic fish house.
FAVORITE PICK The Original Clam Tavern
339 E Broadway Ave., Clifton Heights, 610-623-9537, visit website
Price: $-$$
The Original Clam Tavern is a throwback in the very best sense, an old-school fish house of the sort that’s all but disappeared in Philly but stayed true to blue-collar Clifton Heights for 50-plus years, in fair prices, in classic nautical ambience — and also the beer situation. “We don’t have any fancy beers here, hon’!” the waitress warned preemptively, as she saw me flipping the small menu card over and over. I’ll have to go across the street one day to the Clam’s newer annex, the Broadway Bar & Grille (329 E. Broadway Ave.), to get my craft-brew fix with its signature fried chicken and waffles.

But the Clam is the place I covet. And its greatest asset is owner Tony Blanche, a childhood clam-shucker there who returned to buy it after a career in sales, and who understands the value of quality ingredients treated simply with pride. The clams casino are among the best around. The red-sauced mussels, creamy chowder, lumpy crab cakes, spaghetti with clams, and lobster fra diavolo are all spot-on. Even the filet mignon and veal Oscar lavished with buttery hollandaise and crab are fantastic. But nothing says tradition quite like the signature baked clams, the juicy middlenecks roasted whole in a distinctive steel tray beneath lightly browned Italian seasonings and a tangy, mysterious red dot. “It’s not pimento, which is what most people think,” says Blanche. “It’s ketchup. I never figured out why. But I stick by the recipe.”
Brick And Brew
2138 Darby Rd., Havertown, 484-455-7250, visit website
Price: $$
A wood-fired oven anchors the menu at this surprisingly ambitious duo of gastropubs, with solid pizzas, quality burgers, multiple uses for slow-cooked meats (duck confit and braised short rib) and a signature grilled pineapple app topped with hickory smoked pork and guacamole that speaks to the pile-it-high creativity of this kitchen. Even the decadent dessert shake gets topped with a cannoli. But it’s really the drink program that most impressed here, with one of the best whiskey collections in the burbs, serious cocktails and an outstanding list of craft beers on draft.
Charlies Hamburgers
336 Kedron Ave., Folsom, 610-461-4228, visit website
Price: $
There’s a sense of timeless wonder to a counter seat at Charlie’s — the Delco institution that’s been serving hamburgers and shakes since 1935. It has occupied this no-frills shack in Folsom since 1986, when then-owner Bernard “Bunny” McDonald moved it from the original location in Springfield. Now owned by McDonald’s son, Steve, Charlie’s still cooks every little patty fresh to order just a few feet away, toasting the buns on the shiny side of the flattop for extra flavor. And what those slider-sized burgers lack in size (“I ordered a double.” “That is a double.”) they more than make up for in a powerful griddle savor. There are no froufrou truffled toppings here — unless the Velveeta-like cheese that oozes between the layers counts. But you can get raw onions on the “Bunny” cheeseburger combo, or fried onions and pickles on the “Charlie.” Either way, you’ll want two. And you’ll also want a black-and-white shake whirred-up with Potts-brand ice cream made by Bassetts, which is as classic as a burger-and-shake counter lunch can get.
Il Granaio
711 Concord Rd., Glen Mills, 610-459-8469, visit website
Price: $$
“Il granaio” is Italian for barn — so it’s a perfect name for this spacious, barn-shaped trattoria on a leafy bend of Webb Creek just off congested Route 322. The location might feel a bit hidden, but big crowds of locals have definitely discovered it as a favorite for the hearty portions big flavors from Spasso alums Josh Friedberg, Gent Mema, and Orbelin Bitri who also own Antica in Chadds Ford. Grilled polenta, tender octopus, and a fine take on classic rigatoni alla Norma with melty chunks of eggplant were hits, as were the boldly spiced shrimp fra diavolo and zesty chicken Scarpiello with sausage and hot peppers. The colorful risotto Primavera with artichokes, asparagus, and grilled shrimp with arugula pesto is another dish not to miss.
L'Angolo West
26 E. Eagle Rd., Havertown, 610-446-8400, visit website
Price: $$
Fans of the cozy South Philly original will find many of the same flavors at this simple but tastefully rustic Italian BYOB done up in dark wood, exposed brick, and mirrors. Chef and co-owner Davide Faenza turns out a menu inspired by his native Puglia, from excellent braised duck pappardelle to deftly grilled seafood (try the shrimp over zucchini puree), garlicky artichokes, fresh ravioli (we loved the special stuffed with sausage and broccoli rabe), and a stellar pork chop Milanese topped with salad that ranks among the region’s best — and at $18, a great value, like most of this menu. For dessert, don’t miss wife and partner Kathryn Faenza’s outstanding homemade cheesecakes.
Cajun Kate’s
1362 Naamans Creek Rd., Boothwyn, 484-947-8914, visit website
Price: $
Pull up a counter stool at this po-boy stand in a Delco farmers market (open Fridays and Saturdays), where two vets of New Orleans restaurants are turning-out some of most legitimate Louisiana cooking in the region, from hearty jambalaya to crawfish pies, dark gumbos du jour, a legitimate muffuletta, deep-fried mac and cheese (stuffed with andouille) as well as pralines and beignets for dessert. It’s cash only in Boothwyn; credit cards are accepted at the newer location in Wilmington.
Cajun Kate’s
722 Philadelphia Pike, Wilmington, 302-416-5108, visit website
Price: $
Pull up a counter stool at this po-boy stand in a Delco farmers market (open Fridays and Saturdays), where two vets of New Orleans restaurants are turning-out some of most legitimate Louisiana cooking in the region, from hearty jambalaya to crawfish pies, dark gumbos du jour, a legitimate muffuletta, deep-fried mac and cheese (stuffed with andouille) as well as pralines and beignets for dessert. It’s cash only in Boothwyn; credit cards are accepted at the newer location in Wilmington.
The Apple Walnut Café
2924 West Chester Pike, Broomall, 610-353-1384, visit website
Price: $
This easily overlooked Delco strip-mall café may not have the classic charm of its older sibling, the Dining Car. But its menu serves many of the homey favorites that have made the Dining Car the best diner in Northeast Philly, including the irresistible metal crocks of French onion soup, perfect turkey clubs, crepes Florentine, and the retro chicken croquettes with creamy, chicken-rich centers. The main attraction here, though, is the namesake apple walnut pie, a hybrid cheesecake baked into a pie with walnuts and apples that is worthy of the trip alone. Even better, you can get it stuffed into a French toast that could easily become a brunch obsession.
Viman Thai Cuisine
500 MacDade Boulevard, Folsom, 484-494-0525, visit website
Price: $
I could easily have driven right past this Thai BYOB in the heart of Delco had it not been for a reader’s suggestion. But I’m glad I stopped at what turned out to be a hidden gem. The no-frills space itself may be a formica-table special. But the food has a vivid freshness, with just the right level of spice and undertow of funk to let you know the kitchen is crafting dishes from the heart. The irresistible fresh pork dumplings are a great example of a subtle dish that succeeds due to craftsmanship. Warm minced chicken larb salad over crunchy romaine is electric with a tart lime dressing that sparkles with chilies. The tom kha chicken soup has an extra richness to its coconut milk broth, but also a sour and spicy complexity to keep it interesting. Similarly, the massaman with potatoes and peanuts, a curry I often find boringly mild, shimmered with layered spice and the added tenderness of chicken thigh meat (rather than chewy breast). For bolder heat-seekers, try the wide rice “Drunken Noodles” stir-fried with tender shrimp in a punchy dark garlic-chile sauce full of fermented umami, or the basil-fried rice that lingered on my lips with an aromatic herbaceousness that hummed with spice.
Media
Media is Delco's prime dining hub with a diverse collection of options, from brunch to dim sum, lining its thriving downtown streets.
Tom’s Dim Sum
13 E. State St., Media, 610-566-6688, visit website
Price: $
Stellar soup dumplings and other Shanghai-style hits from one of my Chinatown favorites have arrived to State Street in a former thrift shop turned sleek dumpling nook with woven wood walls and an evocative room-length mural. Owner Tom Guo was the original operator of Dim Sum Garden (which subsequently moved under different management to Race Street) before transforming that 11th Street space into Tom’s, and he has brought that same winning formula of authentic specialties to this sibling BYOB. That includes a wide range of distinctive dumplings beyond those slurp-worthy xiao-long-bao (soup dumplings), including some outstanding scallion pancakes (try them stuffed with beef or pork), the hourglass-shaped sui-mei stuffed with sticky rice, addictive wok-seared string beans with crumbles of zesty ground pork, and a lip-numbing Sichuan entrée of “crispy spicy” butterflied shrimp, which, in one of the few subtle nods to the suburban audience, are handily peeled of their shells. There aren’t many suburban restaurants that bring the bold regional flavors of today’s Chinatown better than this Tom’s, where even the fried rice is hard to stop eating.
Bittersweet Kitchen
18 S. Orange St., Media, 610-566-1660, visit website
Price: $
The savvy weekend crowds line up on Orange Street for the hearty, scratch-cooked brunches at this funky deep-blue cafe, which draws families (thanks to its communal toy box) and fans of all ages for its sweet and savory offerings. Fluffy buttermilk pancakes, including whimsies like the caramelized crème brûlèe stack, are popular. But Bittersweet also makes one of the best huevos rancheros around, its crispy tortillas layered with house chili and eggs, plus some of my recent favorite takes on alt-burgers — a turkey patty layered with cranberry Dijon mustard sauce, and an excellent black bean burger with mango-red pepper relish.
Yia It’s All Greek To Me!
300 W. State St., Media, 610-565-3000, visit website
Price: $
There suddenly are several new quick-serve Greek concepts in the Philly suburbs, and this bright newcomer wrapped in Aegean blue island imagery is one of the most appealing. Spit-roasted gyro meats, souvlaki skewers touched with garlic and oregano, house loukaniko sausage, crunchy feta salads, and flaky spinach pies lend a fresh, homemade Hellenic taste to take-out. The casual dining room is also pleasant to dine in.
Sterling Pig Brewery
609 W. State St., Media, 484-444-2526, visit website
Price: $-$$
There is so much potential in this sprawling, tri-level Media brewpub from ex-Rock Bottom brewer Brian McConnell and restaurateur Loic Barnieu (La Belle Epoque, Picasso). And the beers are better than average, especially the signature Snuffler IPA, a Schweintoberfest bier that’s been made in the past with local Deer Creek malt, a Pata Negra schwarzbier, and the hibiscus-tinted Snap Dragon grisette. The BBQ and pizza kitchen struggled early on, but I’ve heard enthusiastic recent reports, especially about the brisket and smoked wings.
Pinocchio’s Beer Garden
31 E Baltimore Ave., Media, 610-566-7767, visit website
I don't really come for the floppy '50s-era pies at this classic Media pizzeria. I come for one of the best beer gardens and bottleshops in the 'burbs, with over 1,000 varieties to go in mix-and-match six-packs as well as 25 rotating taps, available to go in growlers or crowlers.
Brick And Brew
26 W State St., Media, 484-443-8441, visit website
Price: $$
A wood-fired oven anchors the menu at this surprisingly ambitious duo of gastropubs, with solid pizzas, quality burgers, multiple uses for slow-cooked meats (duck confit and braised short rib) and a signature grilled pineapple app topped with hickory smoked pork and guacamole that speaks to the pile-it-high creativity of this kitchen. Even the decadent dessert shake gets topped with a cannoli. But it’s really the drink program that most impressed here, with one of the best whiskey collections in the burbs, serious cocktails and an outstanding list of craft beers on draft.
Margaret Kuo’s
6 W. State St., Media, 610-688-7200, visit website
Price: $$-$$$
We come to hear the gong announce what is still the region’s best Peking duck, carved and wrapped in fresh pancakes tableside. But there is a vast number of other favorites on Margaret Kuo’s menus that certify her status as one of our pioneers of authentic Chinese food: the first soup dumplings served in the area, open-ended Peking-style potstickers, Shanghai braised pork shoulder served with fluffy homemade buns, red-cooked short ribs, Taiwanese night market specialties, and tofu-seafood fritters in silky bamboo and crab sauce. There’s also an excellent array of real teas. Much of the rest of the region’s Chinese scene has caught up to Kuo’s menu, and the elegant Wayne dining room now sometimes feels, by contrast, a little staid. It no longer feels like a three-beller, but it remains a favorite for a special occasion, with the added bonus of good sushi from the Japanese restaurant on the second floor. Look for excellent take-out dumplings, noodles, fried rice and duck rolls from the stand at Wayne’s Lancaster County Farmer’s Market.
Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant
30 E State St, Media, , visit website
Price: $$-$$$
With 13 locations in three states (including one in the works for Center City), America's seventh-largest brewpub chain has earned national kudos for its polished dark wood decor and ability to balance well-crafted core beers with creative specials from talented individual brewers. They're comfortable and accessible, with food that's generally better than at most chains, even if the huge menu sometimes panders to trends (pumpkin sriracha wings; dandan noodles) and falls back on too much sweetness (ahi tuna salad) for my taste. I've enjoyed the fish tacos and jaegerschnitzel. And service is reliably informative about the beers, which always offer edgier offerings to balance reliable classics like Pig Iron Porter.
Upper Darby
You can eat around the world by circling the block of Upper Darby's Terminal Square, munching from Asia to Africa, Latin America and back.
SA-BAI-DEE
7038 Terminal Square, Upper Darby, 610-352-1119, visit website
Price: $
Adventure diners seeking Southeast Asian fare with a genuine edge should head to this modest BYOB, whose authentic menu is inspired by Thailand and Laos. The Thai fare is among the region’s most solid (including great satay, tom yum and pad Thai), but the spicier, funkier and less-sweet dishes from chef-owner Ketkeo Banthavong’s native Laos are the most compelling draw. Don’t miss the tom zap soup, Laos noodles with pork, whole fish in spicy lime sauce, fresh house sausage or som tum Laos kicked-up to maximum flavor volume with fermented crab.
Little Saigon
113 Fairfield Ave., Upper Darby, 610-352-1002, visit website
Price: $
The cozy pink dining room of one of the region’s longest running Vietnamese restaurants still makes some of the very best spring rolls, with crackly rice paper crusts and meaty, mushroom-flecked fillings. I also enjoyed the soulfully aromatic soups (try the chile-laced bun bo hue), as well as a bo luc lac of tender sautéed beef cubes served with a dish of salt, pepper, and lime for dipping on the side.
El Custatleco Pupuseria Y Restaurant
29 Garrett Rd., Upper Darby, 484-461-3156, visit website
Price: $
As the name implies, the griddled round masa cakes called pupusas are a prime feature at this pleasant BYOB, named for the home region of owner Marisela Mancia in central El Salvador. And the fresh pupusas ($2.50) were excellent, stuffed with everything from cheese and beans to mashed pork, as well as the minced green stems of the loroco flower. But the menu has many other worthy Central American treasures, including a full Mexican menu, Honduran-style baleadas (similar to quesadillas), Salvadoran pastelitos meat pies with flaky crusts turned vivid orange with achiote. The most unusual dish I encountered, though, was the rellenos de pacayas ($12.95), similar in style to an egg-washed fried chiles rellenos in a mild red sauce, but made with the mop-shaped clusters of palm flowers whose long tendrils wove through the fritter’s molten mozzarella stuffing like pleasantly bitter, snappy threads.
Inka Wall
55 Garrett Rd., Upper Darby, 484-466-4610, visit website
Price: $
The hoot of panpipes and the aroma of spit-roasting birds are the draws to this family-run spot that is one of the area’s few genuine Peruvian restaurants. It opened initially as a street-level BYOB, where first-time chef and restaurateur Beatrice Loayza showed a light touch on aji pepper spice, but a solid home cook’s grasp of traditional dishes like ceviche (must order ahead!), pollo à la brasa, and flaky empanadas worthy of a visit. It has since moved to a neighboring basement space with a liquor license for pisco sours and a stage for live performances.
Fanta International African Restaurant
57 Garrett Rd., Upper Darby, 610-734-0746, visit website
Price: $
There are suddenly several African restaurants now in Upper Darby, but I loved the homecooked (albeit sometimes pokey) quality of these the hearty and rustic dishes, but especially the flavorful Senegalese chicken smothered in onions over jollof rice that came with a housemade hot sauce that was so fiery and fresh, it made my scalp tingle.
Pica’s Restaurant
7803 West Chester Pike, Upper Darby, 610-789-7770, visit website
Price: $-$$
People often are divided over whether the pan pizza at 76-year-old Pica's is either pricelessly old-school or hopelessly anachronistic. But Upper Darby native Tina Fey's a devoted fan (as is star chef Greg Vernick) - and I'm with them. There's a unique character to the crusty-edges of this pan-baked dough, which is pleasantly chewy without being heavy like a deeper dish pie, and is ideal beneath the sauce-topped cheese and heat-charred crumbles of sausage with fresh mushrooms. Locals of a certain age order it by "the shirt box." There's a full Italian diner menu, too, which is in fact hopelessly anachronistic. Even so, I was pleasantly surprised by the toothy snap of the house-extruded spaghetti. A snazzy new branch opened in West Chester earlier this year.
Elsewhere
2Sp Brewing Co.
120 Concord Rd. #101-103, Aston, 484-483-7860, visit website
Price: $
Within just a couple years, this ambitious production brewery from the owners of Two Stones Pub and former Iron Hill prize master, brewer Bob Barrar, has produced some of the region's best imperial stouts (like the GABF and Brewvitational-winning "the Russian") as well as quaffacle canned favorites like Delco Lager and 2SPils that channel Aston's blue-collar spirit with crafty new takes on lager.
Avenue Deli
27 N. Lansdowne Ave., Lansdowne, 610-622-3354, visit website
Price: $
This Jewish-Italian deli mash-up is more than just a fun concept that fuses a Reuben into an arancini. It strikes an ambitious spark for a new generation of scratch-cooking delis whose best flavors are made in-house, with house-cured corned beef and smoked turkey, moist Jewish apple cake and hearty breakfasts. A recent visit showed fewer Italian-fusion flavors, but still a focus on homey creativity, including a pastrami spice-roasted chicken sandwich and a lovely tomato-goat cheese tart that struck the perfect tone of casual comfort for brunch after visiting Lansdowne’s lively farmers market.Hopefully it remains steady despite a arecent change of ownership.
Jimmy John’s Pipin’ Hot Sandwiches
1507 Wilmington Pike, Chadds Ford, 610-459-3083, visit website
Price: $
They don't make hot dog stands anymore like Jimmy John's Pipin' Hot - the 77-year-old bastion of natural skin "frankfurters" and mid-century nostalgia not to be confused (at all) with the national sandwich chain. That's why I was thrilled to see owner Roger Steward completely rebuild this long slip of a brick building along Route 202 after a devastating fire in 2010. The hot dogs still have that signature snap (love it with cooked onions), the onion rings and shakes are fantastic, and the model train displays still mesmerize children just as they have for decades.
Penns Woods Winery
124 Beaver Valley Rd., Chadds Ford, 610-459-0808, visit website
Wine importer Gino Razzi and family have found ripeness, depth and refinement in classic vinifera wines like merlot and chardonnay at a high level of consistency. A cab and cab fanc blend called Due Amici (collaboration with Ristorante Panorama) is one of the best local reds I tasted this year.
Terrain Garden Café
914 Baltimore Pike, Building 2, Glen Mills, 610-459-6030, visit website
Price: $$-$$$
If shopping for white pumpkins, reindeer moss and designer terrariums makes you hungry (hey, just the thought of weeding gives me an appetite) Urban Outfitters' unique garden center/restaurant concept is for you. Take a seat in the greenhouse chic ambiance - especially during the hopping brunch hours - and graze a farmhouse platter of house charcuterie and local Doe Run cheeses, thick-cut French toast topped with tea-poached peaches, raw corn salad or roasted chicken over melons dusted with crispy quinoa. The kitchen sometimes gets overwhelmed by the crowds (the bread inside our flower pot was still raw inside), but this was overall a distinctive and enjoyable experience, and a perfect location for a bridal shower, birthday, or private event. But stylish Terrain does have standards: no garden gnomes allowed.
RESTAURANT CRITIC: CRAIG LABAN FOOD EDITOR: MAUREEN FITZGERALD PHOTOGRAPHY: DAVID SWANSON PRODUCTION & DESIGN: GARLAND POTTS VISUALS EDITOR: FRANK WIESE COPY CHIEF: ALISON SMITH INTERNS: ASHLEY GRAEF, THEA APPLEBAUM LICHT PHOTO EDITOR: MICHAEL MERCANTI
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