We could have gone anywhere, but the land of hoagie dip and scrapple fries was calling. And we needed to go somewhere. The heat in our Center City home had died on the coldest weekend of the year and it would be days before our furnace would be replaced. So we packed up the wagon, coaxed our puppy Buttercup into the backseat, and headed West on a grand adventure — to Delco!

Delaware County? I know that simply crossing the Philadelphia city line to one county over might not sound like much of a getaway. It may not have a glamorous ring, either, if you’ve watched Tina Fey rep her Upper Darby roots in SNL sketches, or basked in the Wawa-ness of Kate Winslet’s gritty performance on Mare of Easttown. Or perhaps you’ve read my Inquirer pal Stephanie Farr’s many tributes to Delco Pride over the years, characterizing her “hewm” as “Pennsylvania’s strangest county,” a hard-drinking, hardworking community where folks “are proud of being Philly’s weird suburban cousin.”

» READ MORE: 9 Delco shops to get that hoagie and sandwich fix

By her colorful standards, I’ll admit to a mild case of FOMO for not swinging by Tipsy McStagger’s Saloon in Lansdowne (one of Farr’s favorites) on our family Tour de Delco. But I was instead happily browsing the impressive selection of craft beers and natural wines stocking the shelves at the 320 Market Café branch in Swarthmore (713 S. Chester Rd., 610-328-7211), about to devour one of its excellent black bean falafel tacos. And no apologies were necessary, either, for the satisfying meal we enjoyed beneath the blazing glow of sidewalk heaters outside of charming rye byob in downtown Media (112 W. State St., 610-263-7832).

We dug into elevated comfort food dishes like the house-extruded spaghetti with guanciale and squash, fresh-baked milk buns still buttery in their cast-iron crock, roasted Brussels sprouts drizzled with black garlic hoisin, seared cod over house ramen, and a head-turning double-stacked burger indulgence. This year-old replacement for Lotus Farm to Table from chef-owner Ryan Sulikowski deftly rode a very fine line — at once sophisticated, handmade and accessible — that made me feel like Media was finally beginning to fulfill its potential as a vibrant suburban dining hub.

My meal at rye byob on Day One of our Delco adventure was also resounding evidence that this quirky county with a patchwork of 49 municipalities for its half million-plus residents is much more dynamic than its caricature as a home to dive bars, convenience stores, and hoagie shops. Although, I soon discovered through a memorable sandwich crawl that its hoagie culture ranks among the best. Also, if you’ve never experienced hoagie dip, the meat-cheese-veggie stuffings of an Italian hoagie blended into a spread, it is essentially Delco’s zesty answer to pâté de campagne, and it is glorious. More on the sandwiches later.

From breakfast gems to dim sum destinations, stellar craft breweries like Sterling Pig and 2SP (defying Farr’s credo that Delconians only drink cheap beer), and a vibrant nexus of immigrant flavors in Upper Darby, Delco dining is distinctive and diverse, and the county is certainly one of the most underrated food destinations in the Philadelphia region. Its scene continues to evolve, with newcomers like the Osteria Ama in Chadds Ford (100 Ridge Rd., Suite 24, 484-800-8676) where chef Genti Mataj, also a partner in Haddonfield’s Mare Monte, is making fresh pastas and Neapolitan-style pizzas in a wood-fired oven painted with Mount Vesuvius.

But Delco also maintains an admirably strong embrace of its old institutions, with several dating back half a century or more, a fact that infuses both throwback charm and a certain tension against progress.

Consistency matters

“Delco people, we like things certain ways, and we don’t like change,” says Debbie Morrison, the owner of LaSpada’s Original Hoagies in Milmont Park (1002 MacDade Blvd., 610-461-9023), a steak and sandwich shop (est. 1985) where one of her regulars recently refused an Italian hoagie when she learned that supply chain woes had temporarily replaced some of LaSpada’s usual brand of meats (Berks). “She got the turkey instead.”

This is likely the same reflex that caused so many people angst when the legendary Charlie’s Hamburgers (237 E. MacDade Blvd., 610-461-4228) moved in 2019 from its Kedron Avenue shack to a strip mall space in Folsom. Yes, this burger haven, which dates to yet another location in 1935, definitely lost some old-time charm in the move. But the deeply savory sliders served on griddle-toasted buns inside wax paper sleeves are still so wonderfully retro (get the Charlie’s or Bunny combo) that a spontaneous midday snack there in mid-January is surely responsible for my sudden urge to return and spend more time in Delco when our furnace quit one week later.

I can only imagine the reaction from locals when Media’s massive Towne House restaurant, founded by Silvio “Babe” D’Ignazio in 1951, changed hands after 65 years, underwent massive renovations, and was reopened in late 2020 by Brian McLaughlin and the Letterkenny Hospitality Group. They gave the medieval-looking dining hall and the sprawling building’s four other venues a flashy modern makeover, with trendy brown butter old-fashioneds in the bar, a handsome “Idlewild” courtyard for outdoor dining, and a menu shift to Irish-influenced comforts reflecting the owner and chef’s roots, away from the previous Italian specialties. (“People keep asking, ‘Where’s your spaghetti?’” says assistant general manager Karla Boland.)

I came away impressed by a lunch with unexpected draws such as a tender rabbit pot pie, a creamy oyster stew, and crispy croquettes filled with fluffy potatoes and Serrano ham. I’d definitely return for dinner. But then, a miserable chicken cheesesteak served on a cold roll with wilted lettuce offered a note of caution: Ambitious chefs who get careless with the basics in Delco do so at their own peril.

Among the most reliable is the Shanghai-born Tom Guo, who has proven to be one of the area’s dumpling maestros — even as he’s opened, then left, multiple restaurants across the region over the last 15 years. Wherever Guo goes, my favorite soup dumplings follow.

Some understandable confusion ensued when he left the Media branch of his namesake Tom’s Dim Sum after a 2019 breakup with partners and opened Dim Sum Mania right next door (17-19 E. State St., Media, 610-557-8757; dimsummania.com). Delco loves a good rivalry, and two dumpling halls are better than one. But DSM, which uses a steamer basket of delicate broth-filled xiao long bao, alongside a verdant mound of wok-fried pea greens and some irresistibly crispy, Sichuan-spiced shrimp, remains my first choice.

Dim Sum Mania was also one of the few places in Delco we encountered that took masking precautions seriously. That was also the case nearby at Burlap and Bean (455 W. Baltimore Ave., Media, 484-444-2533), a friendly cafe roasting excellent beans in house (try the barrel-aged coffee collaboration with Dad’s Hat rye) that’s open now for carryout only. It’s worth a visit for the brews and for the best avocado toast I’ve eaten in months, the creamy avocado carefully mashed over crusty whole-grain bread dusted with lemon zest and everything spice.

It’s a light start by Delco standards. If you’re hungry, this county excels at hearty breakfasts, from the high-rise pancakes and “Grateful Dad” creamed chipped beef at Tank & Libby’s (1011 Pontiac Rd., Drexel Hill) to the scrapple fries and Morton Monster at the Coffee Station, a 39-year-old diner classic with two locations. We happened by the Garnet Valley branch (3518 Foulk Rd., Garnet Valley, 610-328-1816) on our way to a dog park in Concordville for Buttercup, and I decided to tackle the Monster, a towering monument of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, and cheese on Texas Toast. Owner John Paciotti has turned his creation into an extreme eating challenge that is the stuff of Wing Bowl dreams: Eat seven in 90 minutes and get your meal for free (plus a T-shirt!). Paciotti concedes this is very Delco. But I’ve got enough apparel, so one was plenty, and the Monster was far better than I expected from a breakfast sandwich novelty.

Sandwich county

Then again, bad sandwiches simply don’t stand a chance in Delco. As our hotel stay dragged on for days, I found myself popping into every hoagie shop on MacDade Boulevard and beyond for an extensive sandwich crawl. Delco’s timeless hoagie universe is a world wherethe best measure longevity in generations, not decades, and a commitment to handmade details matter — like the house-grated bread crumbs that elevate the chicken cutlets at Ro-Lynn Delicatessen in Brookhaven (3407 Edgmont Ave., 610-872-9575) to legend status, or the house-butchered steamship of prime meat that anchors the deeply savory roast beef at A Cut Above Deli in Newtown Square (3523 West Chester Pike, 610-353-4543). Both made some of our favorite Italian hoagies, too.

There’s even a distinctive style of building sandwiches on the southern end of this county known as “the Delco meat wrap,” a layer of thin-sliced meat that’s draped across the hoagie roll’s opening like a cold-cut toupee.

“You’re not getting a hoagie to see vegetables, you’re getting a hoagie to see the meat,” says Morrison of LaSpada’s, who says it’s revealing of inner-Delco’s carnivorous instincts. Just a mile west at the LaSpada’s branch in Garnet Valley near the Delaware border, she said, customers prefer them lightened-up: ”People out there like more vegetables.”

So, my hunger and curiosity were fully sated by the time our new furnace was finally ready to be installed, and we needed to return to Philadelphia. But our fridge was empty. So we took one last distinctively Delco pilgrimage to the Swiss Farms Drive-Thru Market to load up on eggs, milk, and convenience store flair. The 20-minute ride home to Center City seemed so close, but also a world away. Our Delco quest had been a grand adventure, indeed.