A Tale of Two Million Tamales

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Felipe Hernandez at Los Hernandez Tamales. Photo by Gordon King

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.

Audrie Martinez dishes out just-cooked tamales at Los Hernandez Tamales. Photo by Gordon King

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.”

Los Hernandez Tamales

3706 Main St., Union Gap

509-457-6003

Lupe Gutierrez re-loads her tray with masa while making tamales. Photo by Andy Sawyer

Lupe Gutierrez

In a valley filled to brimming with talented cooks and authentic Mexican fare, singling out the “best” tamales may seem an impossible feat. But if the judges of the annual Wapato Chamber of Commerce Tamale Festival are to be believed, those tamales might come from the kitchen of Toppenish resident Guadalupe Gutierrez.

Since the annual fall festival and cook-off competition began six years ago, Gutierrez, 61, has pitted her homemade tamales against some of the Valley’s best — and has won first or second place each year. In addition to the competition, Gutierrez also sells her tamales at the event. Last year, with the help of Elsa Estrada and other friends, Gutierrez sold more than 250 dozen tamales before running out of the crowd-pleasing dish.

The award-winning recipe was passed down from her mother. “It’s a family tradition,” says Gutierrez. “Every year at Christmas, my mom would make 100 pounds of masa.” Gutierrez explains that she and her sisters would eventually turn the stone-ground masa into dozens of tamales to be given away as gifts to holiday visitors. And though Gutierrez no longer makes her masa from scratch (she uses Los Hernandez Tamales’ masa instead), the years of hard work are evident in every bite of her perfected delicacies.

Though the recipe was passed down, the tamal fillings are original. Gutierrez fills her celebrated tamales with everything from pork and chicken to cheese and jalapeno, or spinach and cheese. “You can stuff them with anything you want,” Gutierrez grins.

When not preparing for the festival, Gutierrez keeps her skills honed by cooking fresh tamales for lucky friends, family and co-workers. But locals may not need to wait until October to sample the tasty fare — Gutierrez is busy making plans to open her own “tamales-to-go” eatery in downtown Toppenish, which may open as early as late summer or early fall.

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