Small Town, Big Flavor: Union Gap Tamaleria Wins James Beard Award

Los Hernandez in Union Gap, Washington
Los Hernandez in Union Gap is officially a James Beard Foundation award winner.

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The James Beard Foundation recently announced five nationwide winners of its prestigious awards in the America’s Classics category. One is right here in the Northwest, tucked away in the hills of Central Washington.

Los Hernandez is a small Mexican restaurant on a busy street in Union Gap.

But it wasn’t always that way. Felipe Hernandez started the restaurant in the 90s. At the time, he couldn’t afford to rent in downtown Yakima. Nearly three decades later, the street in Union Gap has changed quite a bit and boasts a lot more traffic.

The street outside has changed, but inside Los Hernandez, what’s a winning formula now is what’s always been there. On the menu is one and only one item: tamales.

People from all over the world have found a new favorite tamale joint in Union Gap. The guest book includes names from visitors across the globe: Czech Republic. Indonesia. Iran.  But Hernandez saves a special thank you for his favorite customers.

“The regular people that come in here, on a daily basis, or monthly, or regulars; the reason we’re here, is because of them,” he said. “I would hope that they keep coming because they certainly have put us on the map.”

On a recent Friday morning, there’s already a steady stream of people coming in. Some people place orders by the dozen. Others sit down to enjoy the tasty dish.

The tamale is a gift of a meal, meant to be unwrapped. They are a staple in Mexican and Latin American cuisine, with origins in the ancient Native communities of Central and South America. Inside is the savory masa—a corn dough filled with spices, meats, and salsa. The mixture is then wrapped in a corn husk or banana leaf and steamed into perfection.

The spot is most well known for its local twist: tamales with pepper jack and asparagus from the Yakima Valley. It’s a seasonal favorite, with the fresh asparagus crop running roughly April to June.

Hernandez emigrated from Coahuila, Mexico in the late 50s. The tamales recipe is from his sister, Leocacia Sanchez. He’s run the restaurant for 28 years, now with help from his wife, daughter, and son-in-law.

The four other James Beard winners in the America’s Classics category were in major cities like Chicago and Boston, but this tamaleria is proud to call itself a small-town Northwest treasure.  

Hernandez and his fellow honorees will be celebrated in May at a gala in Chicago.

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