Best of 2018: In Yakima Valley, America’s best tamales and a family tale
Los Hernández Tamales scored a prestigious James Beard Award.
UNION GAP — These days, when you walk into humble Los Hernández Tamales, you’ll spot customers congratulating the Hernándezes as if they were celebrities.
There’s good reason for that: The Hernández clan is heading to Chicago to accept a prestigious James Beard award on Monday. The restaurant here is one of five recipients of the America’s Classics award, which recognizes regional establishments, often family-owned, “that have timeless appeal and are cherished for quality food that reflects the character of their community.”
In other words, the award says something about not only Los Hernández Tamales, but the community that devours its pork, chicken and asparagus and pepper jack cheese tamales. Farmers in Eastern Washington, known for its booming agriculture industry, provide the asparagus from roughly April to June; the local population, of which nearly half identify as Latino, keeps the demand for the classic Mexican dish high. The introduction of asparagus tamales, about 10 years ago, represents a departure from traditional tamale flavors. Asparagus tamale season each spring now means this time of year — and not Christmas — is the busiest at the restaurant.
Despite the praise and accolades, Felipe Hernández, owner of the widely popular restaurant, remains a humble guy and compares his operation to “mom selling tamales, making a little profit.”
“I just took it to a different level,” Felipe says.
Felipe emigrated from Piedras Negras in Coahuila, Mexico, in 1957. He grew up in Wapato and was a farm worker. Eventually, he began working for the now-defunct retail giant Montgomery Ward. He worked at the department store chain for 18 years. But when he found himself out of a job, Felipe started thinking about those tamales his sister, Leocadia Sanchez, made and sold out of her house. He asked his sister to show him how he, too, could make the delicious masa stuffed with a variety of meats or cheese and chiles and often topped with salsa. The rest, as they say, is history.
But Felipe, who grew up in a large family with 11 siblings, is quick to point out his success is due to his family’s continued dedication to running the business. A key partner in his small operation has been his wife, June. They’ve been married since 1972.
“Nobody does it by themselves,” Felipe says. “The whole family helped me throughout, doing something or other.”
Felipe’s daughter Rachel Wilburn, and her husband Dion, have also been key players. Rachel often arrives at the restaurant at 6:00 am to start prepping for the day.
Still, it wasn’t easy in the beginning. Felipe, then 42, used a combination of seed money provided by Washington state for new, small businesses — about $7,000 — and the approximately $37,000 in retirement money he had managed to sock away over the years to launch Los Hernández in 1990.
At first, he sold maybe 30 to 40 dozen tamales a day.
“A $300 day was a celebration,” June says.
But the customers seemed to like what they were selling and that meant a lot.
“All that encouragement for me. I said, ‘They’ll be back,’” Felipe recalls.
By the fifth or sixth year in business, Felipe and his family were feeling more optimistic about their prospects. On their best days, they sell more than 200 dozen tamales.
And yet, despite the growing success of their restaurant, the family remains in the same modest location. There’s only enough room for a few tables and chairs, an in-the-wall air conditioner and a kitchen that gets cramped as workers scramble to meet the daily demand.
They are, however, opening a second location in West Valley, Yakima County.
When asked what he’s learned over the years, Felipe, who just turned 70, says sacrifice and work ethic are high on the list.
“Are you going to do business, or you going to do what you want to do?” Felipe says.
“I stayed and I thought that was a lesson to me. It’s not the money, it’s the work ethic to keep going.”
He's also quick to point out that loving food has helped, too.
“I’m not a cook. I’m not a chef. I just like food," Felipe says. "I just like good food. That’s it.”
Owner Felipe Hernández hangs an American flag on the exterior of Los Hernández Tamales in Union Gap, Washington, opening the small, award-winning restaurant for yet another day.