Situated alongside the Yakima River in eastern Washington state, the Yakima Valley is an agricultural region that produces wine, apples, cherries, and three-quarters of the nation’s hops. A far cry from the near-constant drizzle of Seattle, the valley sits in a rain shadow cast by the Cascade Range. Many Latino families live and work in the semi-arid Yakima Valley because of the jobs, from planting to picking and processing, created by its agriculture. As a result, the area is dotted with an impressive concentration of Mexican and Mexican-American dining options — from family-style, sit-down restaurants to a food truck that dispenses tacos near a brewery. Here’s a guide to the best spots in the area.
Los Hernández Tamales
3706 Main St., Union Gap, WA
Felipe Hernández’s family migrated to the U.S. from Piedras Negras in Coahuila, Mexico — across the Rio Grande from Texas — but he grew up in the Yakima Valley. After working for nearly two decades at Montgomery Ward, Hernández and his wife began brainstorming ideas for a small business of their own. Hernández’s sister, Leocacia, had been making and selling tamales for extra cash — and finding some success. Hernández hoped to tweak Leocacia’s recipe for consistency and scale up. Their Union Gap tamales shop opened in 1990, and its second location debuted in Yakima in February 2019.
Los Hernández’s chicken and pork tamales, made with cornmeal cooked and ground in-house, attract customers from around the region and beyond. “People come from as far as Europe and Asia. They tell us they didn’t get here by chance — it was on the itinerary,” Hernández says. “It’s all word of mouth.” The James Beard America’s Classics award the restaurant received in 2018 has only increased the excitement and the foot traffic.
The shop’s asparagus and pepper jack tamales make their highly anticipated debut each spring with the harvest and usually last until July. Hernández and his wife came up with the combination years ago using asparagus from a nearby farm stand, and today, Los Hernández uses about 6,000 pounds of the local vegetables each spring. “We liked and ate them, but had no idea what was going to happen,” he says. “It just became a phenomenon.”
102 N Naches Ave., Yakima, WA
Originally from Guatemala, Jose Flores moved to the U.S. in 2014 and worked in the fields, and in kitchens and restaurants. Inspired to start his own business after visiting his wife’s family in Tijuana and Guadalajara, he stumbled upon a food truck that was for sale. “I told my wife, ‘I know this sounds crazy because we don’t have money, but I think it’s a good idea.’” More than two years later, the couple’s food truck, called 5 Salsas, has become a local favorite.
Five Salsas serves tacos, quesadillas, and “tequesos” — Flores’s take on chicharrón de queso, where cheese is grilled and served crispy side up on a tortilla. Parked full-time at Yakima’s Single Hill Brewing, 5 Salsas lets its customers choose from, you guessed it, five salsas. Each salsa is named after a family member or friend who inspired the recipe — La Perrona (the awesome one) is the spiciest, and De Mi Vieja (wife’s salsa) is avocado-based, with jalapeno, cilantro, and spices. Much of the produce used at 5 Salsas is harvested in the valley, including onions, tomatoes, and jalapenos.
Another dish on offer at 5 Salsas are mulitas, tacos with melted cheese and your choice of filling topped by a second tortilla, which Flores recommends to new customers. “I always suggest the pork filling,” he says. “I marinate it with my own recipe of spices, peppers, and pineapple.”
1203 N 1st St., Yakima, WA
Victor “Vicko” Munguia is a 29-year-old entrepreneur who opened his restaurant, LaPinChe, in November 2018 after starting two successful, nutrition-focused meal prep and delivery services, Conquer Meals and Transform Meal Prep. He loves business and likes to stay busy, he says. Originally from Apatzingán in the Mexican state of Michoacán, Munguia’s mom, dad, and brother all work at the establishment.
The restaurant’s name, LaPinChe, can mean many different things — an assistant chef who handles duties like peeling potatoes and washing vegetables, for one — but the sourcing behind the menu is single-minded, “Our mission is to make everything from scratch,” says Minguia. “Handmade corn tortillas, fresh vegetables, and chiles. No cans, no bottles.”
LaPinChe offers nine salsa varieties, including a sweet and spicy tamarind salsa that Munguia says is based on a recipe from his hometown, and a super-sized chavindeca — meat and cheese sandwiched between two 15-inch corn tortillas, laid flat and served in a pizza box — a riff on a regional Michoacán dish of the same name and similar to mulitas. “It’s popular over there, and I wanted to bring it up here and make it popular here, too,” says Munguia. “We call it the Mexican pizza, and everyone who orders one leaves happy.”
Tammy’s Mexican Restaurant
1009 N 1st St., Yakima, WA
Before opening Tammy’s Mexican Restaurant in 2005, Tammy Rivera packed apple crates for 14 years at the Washington Fruit Company in Yakima. She would sometimes prepare small meals for her colleagues in the warehouse, and over time, their positive feedback prompted her to consider a career change. Originally from the Mexican state of Guerrero, Rivera grew up watching her mom and other family members in the kitchen. Today, she’s the head chef and keeper-of-recipes at the restaurant she owns. “It started as a dream,” she says. “Of course I’m proud.”
Tammy’s Mexican Restaurant is best known for its menudo, a traditional Mexican breakfast stew made with cow’s stomach and a red chile pepper base. At Tammy’s, it’s served with onions, cilantro, jalapeno, and from-scratch corn tortillas. Another hearty option and popular local pick at Tammy’s is the slow-roasted birria, which is an adobo-spiced goat or mutton stew from Jalisco, a few states north of Guerrero. Rivera sources goat meat for her birria from Mercado Los Amigos, a Mexican grocery store and butcher in Yakima.
From her birria to her salsas, Rivera says her cooking — and the way she flavors her dishes in particular — reflects her hometown. Defined by its varied geography, including its Pacific coastline, mountains, and plains, cuisine in Guerrero is frequently flavored with chile peppers — guajillo, mulato, pasilla, ancho — as well as garlic, cumin, and cinnamon, among other spices. But Rivera’s recipes and cooking methodologies are kept secret at Tammy’s. A staffer confirms that her boss, Rivera, does all the cooking herself, and that she’s the only one who knows the recipes.