The Unusual Ingredient That Defines Classic Philadelphia-Style Hot Dogs

Philadelphia is the birthplace of several iconic and beloved foods and drinks. Best known for its legendary cheesesteak sandwiches, the City of Brotherly Love is also responsible for introducing Tastykakes, Breyers ice cream, and Good & Plenty candies. And while cities like New York and Chicago are often associated with hot dogs, Philadelphia has its own signature style of the frankfurter, which is quite unusual. One ingredient in this culinary curiosity is something many would not expect on a hot dog, but a Philadelphia dog wouldn't be complete without it. And no, it's not cream cheese; it's actually a fish cake.

A Philadelphia-style hot dog, also known regionally as a "Philly combo" or a fish cake dog, is made by topping a split all-beef hot dog with mustard, a type of tangy relish known as pepper hash, and a crispy yet soft fried patty of fish and potato. Even some Philadelphians have never heard of this concept, but it is one of those old-time dishes that has withstood the test of time and is revered among its fans.

Something's fishy, in a good way

One could say that a Philadelphia-style hot dog is a subtle nod to surf and turf, but it's certainly not a pretentious one. The fish cakes from Johnny's Hots, a long-standing Philly hot dog joint, are a blend of cod and potato. Fried to a golden brown, they add a hint of fishy flavor to the beef hot dog, plus a pillowy texture from the potato. The pepper hash is a tangy mix of bell peppers, cabbage, and apple cider vinegar, serving as the perfect foil to both the fish cake (reminiscent of fish and chips with malt vinegar) and the fattiness of the hot dog.

The credit for the unusual combination of fish cakes and hot dogs goes to Abe Levis, whose own Philly-based hot dog stand, Levis, ran for nearly 100 years before closing. Pepper hash, a Pennsylvania Dutch condiment, has been used to accompany fish in the area for years, making it a sensible addition to a Philly combo. Pepper hash can be likened to a tangy coleslaw but without mayonnaise, appearing more like a relish than a traditional slaw. Other popular additions to Philadelphia-style hot dogs include condiments like mustard and onions.

Philadelphia also claims another type of hot dog

Like many regional hot dogs, Philadelphia-style hot dogs are so unique to their home city that finding one outside the area could prove difficult. If you were to order a Philly dog elsewhere, you'd probably be more likely to receive a hot dog covered in grilled onions, and Cheez Whiz or provolone. Nothing else comes close, except perhaps the Swedish Tunnsbrödrulle. This gargantuan Nordic late-night food includes a hot dog, shrimp salad, and mashed potato, all rolled in a flatbread.

Philadelphia also lays claim to another interesting type of hot dog known as the Texas Tommy, although it has nothing to do with the Lone Star State. Hailing from Pottsville, P.A., a Texas Tommy is a hot dog wrapped in bacon and topped with American cheese or Cheez Whiz.

Interestingly enough, cream cheese (famously associated with the Philadelphia brand) is a vital ingredient in Seattle-style hot dogs. Cream cheese is generously slathered on the dogs, which are then topped with grilled onions, jalapeños, and grilled cabbage. There's no fish in sight in this seaside hot dog, perhaps because it's all in Philly.