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Riding the (regional) Rails: Norristown, Conshohocken, Manayunk & Roxborough

Lou's in Norristown

Tomato pie from Marchiano's in Roxborough

Loyalty in Norristown

A vintage taxi in Norristown

Looking for an early spring escape from Philadelphia? Consider a trip down the Norristown-Manayunk regional rail line for ethnic eats, cold beer and dueling cheesesteaks. Using an all-day SEPTA pass -- and the convenient train timetables provided by SEPTA Instant -- it's possible to skip easily from borough to borough, sampling local flavor as you go. 


The best plan is to ride the line to its terminus and begin in Norristown. This will allow you to establish a solid base of calories to see you through the day. 

Montgomery County's only city (though its population never broke 40,000) struggled to weather the postwar automobile age, losing much of its commercial activity and tax base. But Norristown was never as badly ravaged by the flight of industrial capital and higher income residents as Chester, Camden or North Philadelphia. The official poverty rate is three times the Montgomery County average, but the median income is $43,536 (higher than Philadelphia); the population of 34,324 isn't too far short of the city's peak and even represents an increase of over 3,000 since 2000. That growth is largely due to an enormous influx of Mexican immigrants who went from comprising 6.2 percent of the population in 2000 to 22.1 percent in 2010. It should not be surprising then that many of Norristown's most interesting eateries serve tacos. 

Disembark at the Norristown Transportation Center, which places you smack in the middle of the old downtown. Several cyclopean municipal and county buildings tower imposingly off the main drag. These mid-century urban renewal efforts failed to revitalize the surrounding blocks (and led to the destruction of a bunch of historic storefronts in the process). 

Good thing you'll probably need to stretch your legs after the train ride: Taqueria Mexico Lindo (500 W. Main Street) is eight blocks to the west, and you have to trek across a multi-lane roadway (which does have lights to allow for foot passage). It's a humble restaurant with portraits of Pancho Villa and Zapata on the walls, and mostly caters to locals. The food is cheap -- three orders of tacos with sodas for a little over $20 -- and exceedingly tasty. The fillings include traditional options such as head meat and tongue. 

Norristown has many other Mexican restaurants to choose from, but Taqueria La Michoacana (301 East Main Street) is surely worth a look. (Their salsa verde is especially notable.) One of the city's oldest Mexican spots, it's a significantly larger operation than most of its counterparts.

"We are twenty years old -- the first Mexican restaurant to open [in Norristown]," says Damian Guero, brother of the owner. "We are the fanciest Mexican restaurant. [People] come here for a lot of authentic Mexican dishes they don't find in other places. Weekends are very busy, but we are open seven days [a week]."

Just down the block is Lou's (414. E Main Street), an enduring lunch counter and one of the only known purveyors of the Zep, a sandwich that originated in Norristown. Imagine a hoagie with no lettuce and only one kind of meat, and you've basically got a zep. The ingredients include layers of salami, provolone cheese, fresh tomatoes, raw onion and olive oil. Hot peppers are optional, but recommended. The two main sources for zeps in Norristown get their rolls fresh every day from Conshohocken Italian Bakery (more on that later).

Sampling a zep is a must for Norristown visitors, but of the two sandwich shops locked in a struggle for regional supremacy, only one is really walkable from the train. Save Eve's Lunch (310 Johnson Highway) for another day.


Conshohocken draws companies and young professionals who want an urban, walkable feel without the whole city thing (taxes might also have something to do with it). It is, in the words of a recent Philadelphia Inquirer report, "one of the region's hottest real estate markets." According to the New York Times, the next round of construction could bring enough offices to hold 5,000 workers -- and that's in a town with a current population of just over 7,800. But don't be put off by press about office towers and condos. Though the newer construction clustered around the transit stops is rather dull, it doesn't constitute the whole of the town. (And they do represent the urbanist ideal of transit-oriented development.)

To get to the good stuff, you'll have to hike up a substantial hill. The ascent is no mean feat even in the best of times, but when weighted down by zeps and tacos it becomes a grueling hike. Stop for a drink at the Lucky Dog Saloon (16 E. 1st Avenue), a relatively new bar with an admirable assortment of tap beers and a variety of concoctions served in tin cups ("mules") which the bartender will assure you are very hip right now. Don't linger too long in this establishment that so clearly caters to Conshohocken's newer denizens, as there are other bars to be sampled. 

A few blocks to the northwest lies the Old Time Saloon (666 Maple Street) an old school Conshy watering hole -- exactly the kind of slightly run-down establishment that could be termed a shot-and-beer joint or "an old man bar." The Saloon is no doubt a place where fond memories are forged, or regrettable decisions made. Next door sits the Pizza Time Saloon (628 Maple Street); no further comment needed.

If you didn't eat in Norristown, try Lenny's Italian Deli (900 Fayette Street), which serves not only hoagies and delectable roast pork sandwiches, but also the inescapable zep. 

You should also acquaint yourself with the aforementioned Conshohocken Italian Bakery (79 Jones Street), where all true zeps are born -- the sandwiches are named after those ill-fated airships, which their rolls very vaguely resemble. 

"The zep roll is a specialty roll specifically for those shops that specialize in the zeps -- Eve's and Lou's," explains Tina Gambone, daughter of the bakery's owner. "We also make hoagie rolls, tomato pies, stuffed breads. We are primarily wholesale but use our retail window to test the products."

Conshohocken is home to 42 restaurants, but unless you have a cast iron stomach, spend your time there drinking and walking. The next stop will be very calorie intensive. 

Ivy Ridge

Everyone knows that Manayunk is where a certain kind of college student (white, male bros) go to retire. But surrounding that densely packed little enclave is the much larger neighborhood of Roxborough. Think of them as the blue collar corollary to neighboring Chestnut Hill or West Mount Airy, or the Northeast of the Northwest. 

Before World War II, Roxborough's housing stock looked more like its tonier neighbors, with free-standing single-family homes. But after the war, the rowhome boom saturated the hilly neighborhood. Roxborough's commercial heart on Ridge Avenue is relatively healthy and even enjoys a hyper-local cheesesteak duel between Dalessandro's (600 Wendover Street) and Chubby's (5826 Henry Avenue); the later stays open late and also serves french fries. (Ed. note: Dal's all the way!)

Ridge Avenue isn't easily accessible from the regional rail line unless you don't mind a long walk. Fortunately, there are some essential establishments along Umbria Street on the Manayunk/Roxborough border. Tasty Twisters Bakery (5002 Umbria Street) makes a variety of Philly's famed soft pretzels. Union Jack's (4801 Umbria) is a neighborhood bar with excellent pub food. They are renowned for their hot wings, but the crab cakes and fat potato wedge fries are also worth the trip. 

The main attraction on Umbria has to be Marchiano's Bakery(4653 Umbria Street), a takeout place lined with photos of celebrity customers. It's famous for its tomato pie, served up at room temperature. There's only a sprinkle of parmesan cheese on top, so if real tomato pie -- with nothing but crushed red goodness on top -- is not your thing, be forewarned. And unless you come with an empty stomach, do not order the large. The description is an understatement. 


FYI: Navigating SEPTA

Philadelphia has one of the lowest rates of car ownership in the nation and newer households are even less likely to own an automobile than their predecessors. We also have an extensive public transit system that gets more heat than it deserves, especially when compared with basically any other city outside the other big three northeastern corridor hubs. 

It can be difficult to fully take advantage of SEPTA's regional rail lines for general gadding about -- the schedules are heavily commuter-focused. During non-peak times, the trains tend to come but once an hour. Punctuality is essential. Thankfully, there's an app for that

The other issue is pricing: on a weekend, a round trip ticket to any of one of these towns is $10, if the tickets are bought at the counter. An-on train purchase means a $14 roundtrip (so always buy at the counter when you can). If you plan to go to multiple destinations, a $12 Independence pass gets you onboard, all-day, anywhere in the system. (They is also a $29 family pass available.)
JAKE BLUMGART is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter
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