As they stood behind the bar taking orders last Friday, a trio of fish fry volunteers said they’d noticed a change in the fish fry over the last year or two.
They’d always had loyal customers and good food, but it seemed like more people knew that now too, they said.
“We’re becoming more popular for the quality of our fish,” Steve Tabone said.
So popular, in fact, that with 77 percent of the vote in the championship round, Ancient Order of Hibernians Division #32 – Sean MacBride is the 2018 winner of the Ultimate Pittsburgh Fish Fry bracket.
What’s the secret? Multiple AOH members had the same answer: The fish.
While other fish fry meals offer cod, AOH’s fish fry is known for its fresh, hand-breaded haddock. To Tim Regan, division president of the Irish-American Catholic fraternity, haddock is thinner and less fishy tasting. Regan also prepares the popular baked fish with a New Orleans-inspired marinade.
Open on Fridays during Lent from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Ukrainian American Citizens’ Club in Carnegie, they often sell out before 7 p.m. and always run out of fish by the end of the night.
But it’s not just the fish that makes the spot popular.
It’s also the haluski, made by Gerry Abbot, a member of the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians – Maud Gonne. It’s a simple recipe of onions, cabbage and butter that comes from her mother, she said.
The bake sale with desserts like pistachio cake and coconut cream cake also has regular customers. They mix it up, too — last Friday’s cake had green icing for St. Patrick’s Day.
While it’s a mix of eat-in and carry-out diners, the fish fry is also a chance to go to the usually members-only Ukrainian club and grab a drink at the bar. The kitchen at the club is small, but that means the menu stays simple and classic, said Tom Welch, an AOH member and fish fry volunteer.
A spot for friends
The fish fry serves as one of the two major fundraisers for this AOH division. The other is a golf outing, held annually on the second Friday in August.
Funds from both largely go to charities, including veterans organizations like the Pittsburgh Fisher House, which provides families a place to stay when a loved one is hospitalized at the VA, Regan said.
Raising money with the fish fry is a way to build community both for the volunteers and for the diners. “People like to get together,” Regan said, adding that it’s often the first big event of the year as winter is ending, so people see old friends and acquaintances they don’t normally see.
Back at the bar, the trio of AOH volunteers agreed, saying it was a “good reason to get out of the house.”
After all, pulling off a great fish fry is like a well-oiled machine.
“By the time you’ve got it figured out,” Kevin Wolfe said with a laugh. “You’re done for the year.”
A look back at the competition
In its second year, Ultimate Pittsburgh Fish Fry categories were split into types of fish fry — social clubs and fire halls, eateries, churches west and churches east — instead of by geography.
A No. 7 seed, AOH started in in the Fire Halls and Social Clubs quadrant, which was the most-voted in category throughout the contest. The social club’s toughest competitor was Swissvale VFD in the Elite Eight, but AOH advanced after netting 58 percent of ballots cast. Its biggest win came in the next round, when AOH defeated Riley’s Pour House, also in Carnegie, with 84 percent of the vote.
In the finals, AOH faced Our Lady of Grace in nearby Scott Township, a parish that multiple AOH supporters attend. But in the end, the larger church operation was no match for the winning fish fry.
If you go
Ukrainian American Citizens’ Club
302 Mansfield Blvd. (Carnegie)
4 to 7 p.m.
The AOH fish fry is open this Friday, as well as Good Friday, March 30.
Tips: Orders are in-person only for both dine-in and carry out. Parking includes a lot on the side of the Ukrainian Club, street parking and in lots nearby. The rush tends to be about 4:45 p.m. or 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., so your best bet is to go early before they run out of fish.