"A Philly dirty water dog is quite different from its New York cousin."
You might not think of Philadelphia as much of a hot dog town. Our dog offerings are often overshadowed by the almighty cheesesteak and roast pork sandwich. Although Pat's Steaks, the originator of the cheesesteak, was originally a hot dog stand, and every day thousands of Philadelphians chow down on hot dogs from glimmering lunch carts lined up along the city streets. A Philly dirty water dog is quite different from its New York cousin. More often than not, a hot dog here is a skinless, jumbo (think Chicago-sized) boiled hot dog (Deitz & Watson or Hatfield) on half of a fluffy steak roll.
We're an all-beef (and turkey) town, originally meant for those keeping kosher but the tradition continues for the city's large Muslim population. Good luck finding Sabrett's or New York's red onion sauce here—instead, pile your jumbo dog high with cheesesteak-style fried onions and mustard. Kraut is available but not a must.
A few of the older carts even serve fish cakes and the Philly Combo, a hot dog variation completely unique to Philadelphia. I tried one at Gus' cart on 5th and South streets, about a block away from the former Levis' Hot Dogs where the Philly Combo originated about 90 years ago. A lot of the fish cake combos that are still around serve them on a short and wide hot dog bun with a regular-sized split and grilled dog. But Gus' jumbo working man's surf and turf is enough to keep you going all day long.
Street food in Philly is a decidedly un-hip affair. Fast, cheap and filling. The standard center city "breakfast and lunch" cart is a busted up trailer offering cheesesteaks, meatball sandwiches, kielbasa, hot dogs, and egg and cheese sandwiches, all served on "long rolls." Turkey bacon and all-beef sausage is the norm, and you'll see plenty of folks eating hot dogs for breakfast or ordering three eggs on a steak roll piled high with cheesesteak meat and fried onions.
Philly is not a late-night food truck town. All the carts and trucks are gone by 5 p.m. Not sure if there is a law or just tradition. Some of the best places to get hot dogs and steaks in Philly (like Johnny's Hots and John's Roast Pork) are along the waterfront, open by 5 or 6 a.m. and closed before 3 p.m. The only place to get a late-night hot dog is on that glistening silver rolling grill at 7-Eleven. Eating drunk at 2 a.m. in Philadelphia is all about pizza, steaks and 24-hour diners.
If you head over to 30th Street Station or University City you can find lunch trucks serving up Chinese, Mexican, soul food and Caribbean. Some of these trucks have been around for years and make seriously killer food that rivals sit-down restaurants offering the same fare—but not one "haute dog" or "hip" food truck run by ex-line cooks with tattoos. The closest we've got is a tweeting cupcake truck.
The city's most unique hot dog truck is from a guy at 24th and Passyunk deep in South Philly who makes his own pepper hash. I was going to include him in the Dirty Water Dog category but he just might serve the best dog in Philly, deserving its own illustration and blog post. More research is required.
Gus' Hot Dog Cart
5th and South Streets, Philadelphia PA 19147 (map)
Hot Dog Truck
24th and Passyunk, Philadelphia PA 19145 (map)
Center City Lunch Cart Row
17th Street between Chestnut and Market
University City Lunch Trucks
33rd and Spruce and surrounding area More info here
Hawk Krall is a Philadelphia-based illustrator who has a serious thing for hot dogs. Dig his dog drawings? Many of the illustrations he has created for Hot Dog of the Week are available for sale: hawkkrall.net/prints/.