Photo © EOVA
One of Eastern Oregon’s best kept secrets is the bounty of talented chefs and excellent eateries hidden away in its small towns. Eastern Oregonians know that food tastes best where it’s grown, and that it’s worth traveling off the beaten path for the perfect steak dinner or an expertly brewed pint. Discover these local culinary gems and meet the farmers, ranchers, brewers and winemakers who are the secret behind Eastern Oregon’s bounty.
The Wine Country Farm-to-Fork Roadtrip explores the rich, fertile land along the Columbia River. Take a simulated hot air balloon ride at the SAGE Center, known as the OMSI of Agriculture, for a birdseye view of the region’s vast farmland and gorgeous landscape. Savor the handcrafted brews, delectable chocolates, sizzling steaks, and local culinary delights in the Rugged Country’s breweries and eateries. Then sip your cares away in Oregon’s other wine country: the newly designated Rocks District AVA in the lush Walla Walla Valley.
With long growing seasons, rich soils, and plentiful water from the Columbia River, the Rugged Country has deep agricultural roots. Farmers here lead the state in agricultural production, growing crops ranging from potatoes and onions to wheat and melons.
Learn about the sustainable technologies these farmers are employing to feed the world and power homes and businesses at the SAGE Center. Sometimes referred to as the “OMSI of Agriculture,” the SAGE Center features interactive exhibits devoted to sustainable agriculture and energy. Try your hand sorting onions as they tumble by on a conveyor belt or take the wheel in a simulated tractor ride to plant a straight row of corn. Don’t miss the hot air balloon ride, a simulated airborne tour of Morrow County’s vast farmland and diverse landscape.
Make your way east on Interstate 84 and stop for lunch at Walker’s Farm Kitchen. The Hermiston eatery whips up inventive dishes ranging from hearty Triple Pork Chili to Crab Arancini using local, seasonal ingredients.
Just north of Hermiston, off US 395, the McNary Dam and Pacific Salmon Visitor Information Center provides a fascinating glimpse of life underneath the Columbia River’s surface. Watch as schools of determined steelhead and salmon wriggle their way through fish ladders on the way to spawning grounds upstream.
Take the scenic route to Pendleton via US 730 and OR 37, passing through miles of fertile farmland and pastures dotted with cattle.
Pendleton is best known for its rough-and-tumble rodeo and many of its best restaurants reflect this old west heritage.
Hamley’s Steakhouse offers a full menu of steaks and ‘traditional ranch cookin.’ Belly up to the 100-year mahogany bar and order the WarPaint, named after the famous bucking bronc, which mixes fresh huckleberries and Pendleton Whiskey for a little kick. For dinner, give the JJ Hamlet Filet a try. Before you leave, be sure to pose for pictures in front of the antique bank counter reputed to have been robbed by Butch Cassidy and Kid Curry.
Just up the street, Virgil’s at Cimmiyotti’s, a Pendleton favorite, has been serving up local wines and hand-cut steaks cooked to perfection since 1959. Go for the Virgil’s Oscar; medallions of tender beef topped with crabmeat, sauce Béarnaise, and bacon.
Pendleton is home to some of the world’s finest Western craftsmen; many who maintain workshops open to the public along the city’s Historic Main Street. Watch the folks at Montana Peaks Hat Company hand-craft custom-built hats of all shapes and sizes using century-old techniques and equipment. Stop by Hamley & Co, a 110-year institution, for a peek into the saddle shop and watch Hamley’s talented saddle makers meticulously shaping and carving saddles for locals and Round-Up champions alike.
There are also several culinary delights to be found among Pendleton’s Main Street shops. MaySon’s General Store harkens back to a simpler time with vintage candies and more than 70 kinds of sodas in old-fashioned glass bottles. Next door, Alexander’s Chocolate Classics offers delectable, artisan truffles, flaky pastries, and European Sipping Chocolate.
Grab lunch and a handcrafted brew at Prodigal Son Brewery & Pub. Start with the Pub Salad; a mixture of fresh goat cheese, toasted hazelnuts and tossed greens. Then choose between traditional pub fare (think Scotch Eggs and Ale-Battered Fish & Chips) or a juicy gourmet burger. Wash it down with an Ella IPA.
Work off lunch and learn about Pendleton’s sordid past with Pendleton Underground Tours. Guides conduct spellbinding 90-minute tours through a maze of subterranean tunnels once used to conceal speakeasies, gambling parlors, brothels and other illicit activities.
There are several great activities to fill the afternoon and work up an appetite for dinner.
The Pendleton Woolen Mills offers free, twice daily tours of the mill and provides visitors with an up-close view of its renowned weaving process. The company has been churning out its iconic blankets and textiles, made from locally sourced wool, since 1902.
Rodeo buffs should check out the Round-Up and Happy Canyon Hall of Fame, which brings the city’s world-famous rodeo to life with an extensive collection of saddles, clothing, Indian regalia, photographs and hundreds of other items.
Or, for another view of the region’s rich culture, pay a visit to the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, which celebrates the traditions and contributions of the local Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla tribes through hands-on demonstrations, engaging exhibits, renowned artwork and films, and special events.
Book a table at nearby Wildhorse Resort’s Plateau Restaurant for a tender Pendleton Whiskey Steak and exquisite views of the snow-capped Blue Mountains rising in the distance.
Umatilla County is home to some of Oregon’s most productive farmland, and the region’s bounty is on display as you travel between Pendleton and the community of Milton-Freewater along OR 11.
Wine-growers on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley were recently given their own AVA designation – the Rocks District AVA — and it’s worth spending an extra day here to sample and sip your way through their award-winning Sangiovese and Cabernets.
Pop into Zerba Cellars’ log cabin tasting room for a taste of one of the winery’s 20 varietals. Or, for a more European flavor, try Tero Estates’ award-winning Sangiovese (an Italian varietal) or Castillo de Feliciana’s Spanish-style wines.
The elegant Marcus Whitman Hotel, in Walla Walla, pours wines from several local wineries including Locati Cellars and Don Carlo Vineyard.
Watermill Winery and Blue Mountain Cider Company share a tasting room and offer options for wine and cider lovers alike. Order a glass of the Praying Mantis Syrah or a Cherry Cider, which just begs to be eaten with a slab of dark chocolate.
For the beer lovers in your group, the place to go is Dragon’s Gate Brewery for its Belgian-style farmhouse ales.
Before you leave Milton-Freewater, pick up a tasty souvenir at Petits Noirs. The chocolatier’s innovative creations are inspired by flavors found in the Walla Walla Valley’s abundant orchards and beautiful wines. Pick up an assortment of truffles with flavors like violet, hazelnut, rosemary and chili pepper for a sweet, sweet reminder of your trip.
To plan your trip to Eastern Oregon, head over to: http://www.visiteasternoregon.com/.