Wholey's kitchen manager Aaron Van Buren, who was born and raised in New Orleans, says he has cooked at "everything from ghetto joints to five-star restaurants," and while they may eat more etouffé and jambalaya in New Orleans, they certainly don't eat as many fish sandwiches.
With two dedicated, 100-plus-gallon fryers, Wholey's will serve up 80 to 400 pounds of fish in a day. On one Friday, the lunch crowd stood six to 10 deep as they made their decisions: fried or broiled; cod or whiting; soft bun, Mancini's bun or Italian roll. The line moves fast enough so that one barely has time to decide.
Van Buren says all the fish comes directly from Wholey's warehouse and not the yards of fish-laden counter surrounding him. His cooks cover the fish in a simple batter -- no egg, no milk, just a combination of dry mix and wet mix -- and then it goes into the fryer. The end product is shiny gold, crunchy and mild.
When asked about the myriad of competitors he faces, he asks, "What competition? I don't do any mudslinging. It's the customer and what they want. One fellow told me they have the biggest fish. I said, 'I don't care how big your fish is.'"
Barry Nelson, 55, of Plano, Texas, visiting his daughter Anne, a student at Duquesne Law School, makes a point to eat fish sandwiches whenever he's in town. During Duquesne's 100-year anniversary, Nelson, a one-time NBA player and a star at Duquesne, was inducted into the school's Hall of Fame. As an added benefit, Nelson received a lifetime award of fish sandwiches and beer from another Pittsburgh fish joint. Nelson enjoys the perk, but he happened to be in the Strip when he heeded the call of Wholey's.
During the '70s, he says, he and his friends took the bus to Wholey's, bought their sandwiches, and took them up the street to the Fruit Exchange Bar, where they could eat them while having a beer.
"We can't get a good fish sandwich in Texas," Nelson said.
Will Simmons, 34, a non-native Pittsburgher living in Lawrenceville, concurs.
"I moved to Pittsburgh from the South. No one ate fish sandwiches in the South, and no way you'd have a place on each corner boasting of their fish sandwich. Maybe it's a Catholic thing, but there are other cities with large Catholic populations."
Simmons has documented this Pittsburgh phenomenon by photographing many of the fish-sandwich signs that appear throughout our streets. And he puts his faith in fish sandwiches in action.
"I eat every fish sandwich I can get my hands on," says Simmons. "I like a good crunchy meaty fish, a single filet." He adds that stacking filets seems like cheating. Simmons says that the practice of having the fish stick out from the side of the roll is like some kind of insider joke. "I love the big fish sandwich with a small hamburger-sized roll. It's like the bun is some kind of placeholder. Actually, when you see a fish that can fit in the roll, it's kind of a let-down."