By now, serious foodies know where to find the best tamales in the Northwest: Los Hernandez in Union Gap, Washington. This unassuming family-run restaurant with only a few tables has been stuffing masa dough for about a quarter of a century. Long ago discovered by the population of Yakima Valley locals, it has since appeared under the spotlight on the international stage. Large-scale discovery was not something owner Felipe Hernandez was looking for, but now that it’s happened, he’s beefing up production, trying to keep pace with demand.
How did the culinary spotlight hit Los Hernandez? The James Beard Foundation, America’s equivalent of the Oscars of the food world, found out about the restaurant’s savory, stuffed pillows of masa wrapped in corn husks, and voilà! Los Hernandez won the 2018 James Beard Foundation America’s Classics Award, one of five regional awards given out across the country annually.
The humble tamale is basically an ancient Mesoamerican dumpling, of sorts. They are contained bundles of goodness―practical, filling and easily portable. Such a culinary wonder was bound to survive the centuries and eventually end up in the recipe files of families like the Hernandez family.
Union Gap, geographically far from ancient Mesoamerica, is in Washington’s Yakima Valley, an agricultural powerhouse that produces some of the best springtime asparagus crops in the country. A seasonal palate-pleaser at Los Hernandez is their asparagus tamale, the result of an experiment; otherwise, the Hernandez family keeps it traditional with the usual fillings of chicken and pork.
What sets these tamales apart from the countless other tamales across America? Is it reputation? Or the novelty of fresh, local asparagus? Perhaps it’s the love that goes into every little bundle. Or the fact that the corn used in the masa is ground in-house.
The answer is in every detail. Meticulous details with no corners cut create the subtleties of appearance, texture, flavor and aroma that set them apart. Golden in hue and delightfully creamy, the steaming bundles are ultra-satisfying, the ultimate American comfort food.
Felipe Hernandez understands the importance of details and has always strived to make the best tamales he can, but he had no inkling he produced the best in the Northwest until someone told him.
I ran into Felipe Hernandez and his crew at Crave, a food show in Spokane Valley. Since the James Beard Award, public demand has brought him and his tamales to food events far and wide. I waited in a long line, and when it was my turn, he asked, “Chicken, pork, or asparagus?” obviously in an assembly line groove.
I said, “All three, please.” (They were sample size.)
He loaded up my plate with the golden morsels. His James Beard Award sat on the table for everyone to see next to the tamales.
I asked him if he was going to expand since he became famous.
He smiled and paused, making eye contact for the first time. “No plans yet, but I’ll probably have to.”
The customers behind me in line were stirring restlessly. Someone cleared their throat. I stepped aside, took a bite of my asparagus tamale, masa dough melting in my mouth and flavors melding into an earthy-bright-piquant bouquet. I knew what all the fuss was about.
To sample the best tamales in the Northwest, head to Los Hernandez Tamales at 3706 Main Street in Union Gap, or call (509) 457-6003 to place an order of frozen tamales for shipment.
Go to visityakima.com to make Yakima Valley travel plans.