A Tale of Two Million Tamales
By Heather Caro
With layers of cornmeal masa and rich, seasoned fillings tucked into a softened husk, tamales might be the ultimate comfort food. And though enjoying renewed interest among the “foodie” crowd because it’s handmade and has versatile fillings, tamales are far from a novel creation.
In fact, tamales were probably conceived out of necessity — more than 7,000 years ago. The hearty, portable food was able to be filled with “whatever was on hand” and may have fed ancient Aztec and Incan warriors. From humble beginnings, tamales later went on to become a favorite dish perfected by generations of Latin American cooks. Today, more than 500 tamale variations can be found throughout the United States as well as Central and South America, but the tastiest tamales are those that are hand-prepared using time-honored and labor-intensive methods.
To make tamales from “scratch,” yellow corn is cooked in lime water, then stone-ground and dried to make masa. The masa is then combined with shortening and spread on a softened corn husk before adding spicy fillings such as peppers or seasoned meat. Finally, each bundle is carefully folded and boiled or steamed. Thanks to the husk, tamales can stay warm for hours — perhaps the original “fast” food — but are tastiest when eaten straight from the steamer.
Even for veteran cooks, the steps to prepare the tamales can take days and are often reserved for special occasions and holidays. But if a weekend of laboring in the kitchen sounds daunting, don’t worry. The Yakima Valley is a hot spot for authentic Latin American cuisine, including the tamal (singular for tamales). Here are a few of the local experts who have stepped up to satisfy tamal cravings throughout the Valley — and beyond.
Los Hernandez Tamales
Nestled between used-car lots and antique stores in Union Gap, the boxy, white storefront of Los Hernandez Tamales appears unassuming and quaint. But step inside the simple brick building and diners will find an authentic culinary gem that’s earned a reputation for its delicious fresh tamales.
In fact, says owner Felipe Hernandez, the tamales are in such demand that Los Hernandez has served more than 2 million of the handmade delicacies since first opening its doors in 1990.
One taste of the melt-in-your-mouth treats — which come in varieties such as pork, chicken and the seasonal asparagus and pepper jack cheese — and it’s easy to see why this modest eatery has become a local favorite. With tamales this tasty, it was only a matter of time before the word would get out.
While relying almost exclusively on word-of-mouth advertising, Los Hernandez Tamales has been featured on an episode of the PBS hit Northwest Backroads and even mentioned in Sunset magazine — twice. They’re also a regular stop on many wine country tours and frequently welcome visitors from around the country.
“It is crazy the people that come through here,” says Hernandez’s daughter, Rachel Wilburn, who works at the primarily family-run establishment. “We have a guy that comes from Portland and buys 30 and 40 dozen at a time. My dad always says you never have enough.”
As if to illustrate her point Wilburn pushes the play button on a blinking answering machine and a gruff voice places an order for dozens of tamales to be shipped — to France. She grins while looking for an order slip — apparently these requests are not uncommon.
But the success of the popular eatery has not come without sacrifice for the Hernandez family.
Los Hernandez Tamales was born out of necessity when owner and namesake Felipe, 62, was fired from a 19-year sales position at Montgomery Ward. Suddenly out of work and needing a way to support his wife and two young daughters, Hernandez looked to tamales. Specifically, he looked to his sister Leocacia’s Texas-style tamales, which had long been a favorite among family and friends. With her help, Hernandez refined the recipe and adapted it for commercial use. With the aid of Washington state’s SEED program, which once provided startup assistance and training for small business owners, Hernandez decided to take the leap to entrepreneurism.
“It was not easy,” says Hernandez, who has lived in the Yakima Valley since 1957 and credits the eatery’s success largely due to the support and acceptance of his family.
Today, to keep up with demand, 60 dozen to 80 dozen tamales are prepared daily using traditional methods at a separate location in Union Gap. “I cook and grind corn the old-fashioned way,” says Hernandez, who in addition to tamales and fresh salsa, also sells his yellow, stone ground masa and corn husks for DIY-ers.
And Los Hernandez’ busiest season — spring — is just beginning. The popular asparagus and pepper jack cheese tamales are available only during the Valley’s asparagus season — March through mid-July — and advance orders have been piling up since December.
Though the business is growing at a rate that an expansion may soon be in the works, Hernandez insists he will never cut corners when it comes to making tamales.
“We go through a little more because that’s what got us here.”