TRAVEL-phobic squares might try to convince you that Pennsylvania Route 63, the unassuming stretch of state highway that runs east-west between Green Lane, Montgomery County, and Bensalem, Bucks County, is just a street. Don't believe them. Though it doesn't resemble any international jet runway you've seen before, that's what it is. In fact, along a certain three-mile stretch of it in Montgomery County, an intrepid motorist (or super-intrepid pedestrian) could span multiple regions of the globe in the time it takes to shuffle through a Pennsylvania Turnpike tollbooth.
There's no Hogwarts-style teleportation magic in play here. You're just looking down the barrel of some diverse eating options situated in a single, straight-shot line.
House of hummus
Our itinerary starts in Lansdale, the lovely old Montco suburb and sworn cognitive scourge of people from Lansdowne. (People from that Delaware County borough are asked constantly what it's like to live in Lansdale, and I bet it works both ways.) There's a charming red-brick house just past the corner of Valley Forge Road and West Main Street, a/k/a Route 63. It's got a broken-in, lemonade-sipper front porch with columns. An American flag hangs up and down in one of the streetside windows.
There's a Pizza Hut and a Starbucks within shouting distance, but resist the franchise lure and keep your eyes on the hummus-spooning prize. That house with the porch and the flag, if you read closely, is The Oasis, a family run Lebanese BYOB that's one of Lansdale's longest-running restaurants.
Founded in the early '80s as a Middle Eastern grocery and takeout, The Oasis expanded to the house next door a few years in and has become a sort of standard bearer for local food freaks. People really settle into the scattering of tables in the dining area, nibbling through dishes of spicy olives in a granny's-living-room setting that seems better suited for glass bowls filled with Starlight Mints.
Beyond 'Pizza Town'
Micheline Habib is the chef, though her husband, Wadih, and two college-age daughters - both pre-med at Drexel (their parents are very proud) - help with cooking, too. It's good - kibbe, falafel, shawarma, homemade baked desserts. The rice underneath the tender, Turkish-style shish taouk, mixed with snipped vermicelli noodles, features a blend of 15 different spices, and the Habibs are willing to disclose exactly zero of them.
Both Micheline and Wadih are from Kousba, in Lebanon's north, and ended up in Lansdale after her brother met and married a woman from here. "In the beginning, it was very hard for us to get people to know about this food," said Micheline, who characterizes the Lansdale of the past as "Pizza Town," nothing but pies, every which way. Now, she's pleased to report, her regulars are one big blend. Lebanese, Egyptians, Syrians and Jordanians from the surrounding areas drive in to join the Americans well-versed in her cuisine.
The beer 'round here
Adam McGrath, a classmate of mine from La Salle University who grew up in Lansdale and lives there currently, says the "Pizza Town" characterization is a fair one - or at least it used to be. "You have your pizza shops and your bars with fried food," he said of Lansdale's core options, rattling off a list of places with Italian surnames like he's taking attendance on the set of "The Sopranos."
Note that this conversation's happening not over Miller Lites at an anonymous Iggles den, but between sips of apple saison and German-inspired Berliner Weisse at Round Guys, an award-winning craft brewery a few blocks beyond The Oasis. Brewer Scott Rudich opened here in 2012, encouraged by a local government eager to attract entrepreneurs to its commercial corridor.
"I think people are a little bit more optimistic about the prospects of the town," said Rudich, crediting the borough with improving the climate for independent operators. (The PennSuburban Chamber of Commerce counts around 700 businesses as members.) "There's no place to go but up."
Go down the block in the meantime, and you'll find Amarilis Cafe. Touting "healthy fast food" on its facade, Amarilis specializes in hearty, homey Latino Caribbean cooking: pig's feet and yuca for breakfast, pernil al horno for lunch, shrimp with mofongo and tostones or bistec encebollado for dinner. Get there early enough, and you can order directly from a glass-enclosed warming cabinet, filled with fried pork, empanadas and alcapurria. Healthy? Not in the traditional sense. But it's fast, and it's damn good.
And now to Korea
Traveling about two miles southeast down 63, away from Amarilis, will take you into adjoining North Wales, home of the enormous and somewhat overwhelming Assi Plaza.
Located in a shopping center that already boasts a staggering amount of diversity - on one side, there's a Chinese buffet, a Korean restaurant, an Indian place and a Vietnamese pho parlor all in a row - the 11-year-old Assi is a top-notch Korean supermarket, the type of place with a cavernous kimchi cold case and helpful aisle signs written in dueling English and Hangul. Folks who grocery-shop here also tend to take advantage of the store's built-in food court, which features an Asian bakery, a noodle soup and a sushi stand.
Diners looking to eat outside Assi's immediate environs hook around the corner to visit Koko Korean BBQ, one of a trio of interconnected concepts under the same management. The 'cue spot and the karaoke lounge have been open about seven years; Sang-Hi, serving Korean-style Chinese, is a few years newer. (Everyone loves the chajangmyun, noodles in a Night's Watch-dark black bean sauce.)
Though it uses clean gas grills instead of the charcoal setups coveted by K-BBQ purists, Koko is a traditional operation, one that sees a mixed Asian and American clientele fiddling with delicate strips of bulgogi, mok sal and galbi before and after bites of complimentary banchan, such as spicy cold broccoli, sliced daikon and chewy tofu skin.
If you're following along at home: Along this three-mile stretch of road, it's possible to lunch like you're in Lebanon, drink like you're in Belgium or Berlin with a hearty and immediate Caribbean follow-up, bounce over for a special kind of Seoul food and round out dinner, if you wish, with snacks from several other Asian countries.
Route 63, right here, is also home to the glinting American Star Diner, in the Montgomery Commons Shopping Center - but it's pretty American already.