The Fish Cake Dog Is A Classic Philly Sandwich In Need Of A Comeback

When you think of famous Philly foods, what comes to mind? The cheesesteak is the first (and perhaps only) dish in the minds of many, but if you're a little more in the know, you might mention hoagies, soft pretzels, or the mysteriously-named water ice. Then there's one Philly classic that almost nobody outside of the city (and few within its limits) know about: The fish cake hot dog, AKA the combo, AKA the poor man's surf-and-turf.

This old-school specialty consists of a bun with both a hot dog and a deep-fried fish cake (think a crab cake, but made with white fish instead). It can be topped with whatever hot dog condiments you like, but the most traditional topping is something called pepper hash. Although this unique, delicious sandwich has been a part of the city's culinary landscape for over a century, it's in danger of being forgotten. As a Philly native and lover of my hometown's beautiful food culture, I can't bear to let that happen. Here's why I think the fish cake dog is a historical artifact worth preserving.

Before Philly was a cheesesteak mecca, it was a fish and hot dog town

Although Philly is synonymous with the cheesesteak sandwich, other fast, cheap meals like hot dogs have an even longer history in the city. In fact, the guy who invented the cheesesteak in 1930, Pat Olivieri, was a hot dog vendor before coming up with his famous steak sandwich and founding Pat's King of Steaks.

Fish has been an important part of the city's culture for even longer. In fact, Philly was a fishing hub long before European settlers came along an founded the city. The neighborhood now called Fishtown, on the shore of the Delaware River, was once a bountiful fishing site for the indigenous Leni Lenape people. In the 1800s, it became the center for commercial shad fishing in the city.

All of this is to say that fish cakes and hot dogs have deeper culinary roots in Philadelphia than the cheesesteak, which is a comparatively modern invention. The presumed inventor of the fish cake hot dog, Abe Levis, founded his hot dog restaurant in 1895, a full 35 years before the birth of the cheesesteak. So, why has a city so obsessed with history let such a foundational part of its food heritage fall into obscurity?

The fish cake dog is now endangered

It's not an exaggeration to say the fish cake dog is becoming more obscure with each passing year. While the birthplace of the cheesesteak, Pat's, has become a tourist icon, the same can't be said for the home of the Philly combo. Old Original Levis Hot Dogs closed down in the '90s, and an attempt to reopen in a new location only lasted a few years. 

As someone who spent the first 18 years of my life in Philadelphia, I had never heard of this sandwich until I came back for one summer during college. A fancy hipster-ish hot dog place called Hot Diggity had opened in my neighborhood (coincidentally, only about a block from the old Levis location). Along with specialty hot dogs from around the world, Hot Diggity offered a nouveau take on the Philly combo, in which the fish cake was formed into a tube around the frank. Hot Diggity, too, is now closed.

A couple of places are keeping the flame alive. Johnny's Hots, located (appropriately) in Fishtown, sells a classic version with pepper hash. Pat's also has hot dogs and fish cakes on the menu, though it sells thousands of cheesesteaks every week and only a few hundred hot dogs. Growing up in Philly, I was never more than a couple of blocks from a place where I could buy a cheesesteak, but you have to actively seek out the Philly combo.

If the fish cake dog dies, so will pepper hash

The classic accompaniment for a fish cake dog is a crunchy relish called pepper hash. This zesty topping is in essence a vinegar slaw made with cabbage, shredded carrot, and sweet red bell peppers. Its history in the city goes back to at least the 1800s, when it was used as a cheap alternative to lemons, which were expensive in the Victorian era. When the city still had a vibrant commercial fishing industry, fried fish and seafood of all kinds were plentiful, and the refreshing crunch of pepper hash was a perfect side dish.

In the 20th century, pepper hash became a diner staple. In addition to its classic use as a companion for seafood, it was also a popular hot dog topping and condiment for scrapple (another regional food with an illustrious history in Philadelphia). However, by the dawn of the 21st century, it had disappeared from menus across the city. These days, the places you're most likely to find it are the old-school hot dog joints that also serve fish cake dogs. If these places don't survive, neither will pepper hash, and another piece of Philly food history will die a sad death.

The combo should be a bigger part of Philly's sandwich legacy

I'm a proud Philadelphian, and I firmly believe the city is the best place to eat sandwiches in the U.S. (possibly even the world, but that might be overly boastful). I love a good cheesesteak, but the national media's focus on that one sandwich obscures the fact that Philly has many local specialties that are every bit as good, if not better. A real Philly hoagie puts the sad subs you get in most cities to shame, and my personal favorite, the roast pork sandwich with garlicky greens and provolone cheese, is basically heaven on a roll.

With all that said, I think it's a shame that possibly the oldest local Philly sandwich, the fish cake dog, has been reduced to a historical footnote. For one, it's delicious. The crisp of the deep-fried fish cake works great with the juicy snap of a high-quality hot dog, and the pepper hash ties everything together and makes the flavors of fish and frank play nice. 

It's also distinctive; as far as I know, it's the only surf-and-turf hot dog that is a traditional working-class food and not some recent bougie innovation. People in Philly should be making documentaries about the fish cake dog, and promoting the places that serve it as tourist destinations, just like they've done with the historic cheesesteak spots. Come on, Philly: Let's save the fish cake dog.