In previous culinary Escapes from Seattle, you’ve seen what happens when a food-loving indoor extremist goes to Whistler, and just last week, for the start of a new trip report, you learned how the Portland food scene differs from Seattle’s. That trip next took me from food-rich Portland to the wine-rich Yakima Valley. Would I go hungry, and be forced to live on wine (and cherries) alone?
Perhaps the most prominent restaurants in Yakima are Tony’s Steakhouse and Gasperetti’s Italian restaurant. I checked them both out, and found them to be ordinary places that could be in Anytown, USA. Tony’s featured big plates with big portions and big protein boosts for lunch, such as an American Kobe (does that really mean anything?) prime rib salad.
Meanwhile, Gasperetti’s was a tomato-sauce type of Italian restaurant where I sampled “John’s Combination Plate,” with spaghettini, ravioli, Italian sausage and meatball, chicken cacciatora and chicken giblets. Points to Gasperetti’s for offering some seasonal asparagus dishes, though points deducted for a “G-Spot” lounge that wasn’t all that stimulating.
If it’s asparagus you want, and you’re hitting it in the right season (May until perhaps the last week of June, when I got there), check out Los Hernandez in Union Gap. They sell tamales, handmade fresh daily; the friendly shopkeeper told me that people trek from Bellingham to Boise to buy them by the dozen, usually frozen. I got there late afternoon my first full day in Yakima only to be told that the asparagus tamales were sold out, so I made it a point to go again early the next day to be sure to sample them. (They also have chicken and the more traditional pork varieties.)
The wait was well worth it. The tamales come out steaming hot and packed with asparagus flavor, making Los Hernandez a unique food find. Los Hernandez offers fresh-made salsa, homemade masa (cooking and grinding their own corn to make a preferred coarser texture) and hojas (corn husks) in bags of 120.
Some of my favorite meals were at the many taco trucks and shops you’ll find as you drive through the area. In Yakima, I enjoyed some soft-shelled specialties at Taco El Grande, which is across the street from Fiesta Foods grocery store—the Uwajimaya of the Mexican variety. At Fiesta Foods, it’s fun to wander the aisles to see the different meats (look for lots of tripe and tongue), produce (avocados and jalapenos abound), beans, the aforementioned masa and hojas, and fresh juices available.
In Sunnyside, I ate more tacos (with a side of caramelized onions) at Tacos Apatzingan, a small taco shop in a garage—in fact, it’s attached to an auto garage. This was part one of a two-part lunch, the other at Snipes Mountain Brewery, which uses local hops to produce a variety of beer varieties, including E.S.B. (Extra Special Bitter). While it was nice to see the glass-enclosed brew room inside the restaurant, had I thought about it, I would have gotten a growler to go and had it with those tacos at Apatzingan.
Beer makes a nice break from all the wine-drinking for which the area is known. Another colorful option is the Yakima Sports Center, which features fresh fruit drinks (of the alcohol variety) and a varied menu from gnocchi to green curry, and burgers to beer-battered fish. You’ll know the place from the huge, revolving hunter hanging on the outside of the building and all the Yakima Sun Kings memorabilia on the inside.
One winery offering a non-alcoholic alternative is Piety Flats Winery, which does old-fashioned root beer floats. But it is a winery, with a welcoming counter that invites the pious and non-pious alike. Piety Flats resides in the historic Donald Mercantile building, dating back to 1911, and true to the name it carries local gourmet specialty products perfect for picnicking, including Cougar Gold cheese from WSU.
I hit a few other wineries with food offerings, such as Gilbert Cellars in downtown Yakima. Gilbert’s counter (handmade, as are other wood features that give the place a classic-yet-contemporary, wine bar feeling) is a perfect spot to sample tapas with wine pairings to match. Also downtown is Kana Winery‘s tasting room, a little more traditional feeling, selling some food products of local interest, as well as creamy truffles made by Brigittine Monastery monks. Further from Yakima, Windy Point Vineyards offers cooking classes, and also inviting chairs to sip and sup while taking in the rolling landscape. (The terrain of central and eastern Washington is simply terrific to behold.)
But my favorite food experience at a winery was at Kestrel Vintners further east in Prosser, where Carlos Trevino offers the most interesting opportunities to explore food and wine pairing. Come to Kestrel on a Friday evening, and you might get to join a Simple Supper (with a main, side and glass of wine for $15), or, if not the third Friday of the month, then experience Bites and Flights, as he prepared for me. It’s a wonderful opportunity to not just speculate about pairings, but to actually experience and discuss them with some of Kestrel’s winemaking team.
My stay in Prosser was too brief. I was camped out at White House in Yakima, which is probably better known as a café serving breakfast and lunch daily than as a B&B. If a room with wide-eyed baby dolls, multiple pairs of baby shoes, random wedding photos, and ornamental plates on the wall (and a bathroom with seven wall mirrors, 16 hand mirrors, and four clocks all reading 12:12) holds charm for you, then this is your place to stay.
I wish I had taken a night at Desert Wind Winery in Prosser, offering gorgeous rooms with balconies overlooking the Yakima River and featuring fireplaces, large tiled baths, plasma TVs, and tasteful Southwestern decor. Desert Wind offers a fine selection of wines, and on-site is Mojave by Picazo for select meals. (I’ve heard good things about Picazo 7Seventeen Wine Bar & Restaurant in town.)
Nearby is the Prosser home store of Chukar Cherry Company. Most Seattleites know the sampling station and store at Pike Place Market, but the Prosser location offers more personalized service, more products and tastings, a chance to learn more about the process of making the cherry delicacies. Those products include peach cherry salsa, curried cherry chutney, and cherry chipotle BBQ sauce, as well as a vast array of chocolate-covered cherries. (Perhaps it was the influence of wine country, but I liked the cabernet cherry and pinot noir cherry, though my favorite was chipotle cherry for its slight smokiness and spicy finish.)
Cherries are, of course, are prevalent in the area, as Washington state produces more than half of the sweet cherries grown in the country. My final morning in Yakima, I paid a visit to the Washington Fruit Place and Gift Shop at Barrett Orchards, which produces a wide variety of fruit. This fourth generation orchard is a wonderful place for peeking (there’s a self-guided information tour), picking, and picnicking—or just shopping at the store. (Another non-wine alternative are the fruit smoothies they sell.)
Beware that it’s hot in the desert during summer harvest months, so seek shade for rest. I took a bag of cherries for the road and made a final stop at Essencia Artisan Bakery and Chocolatier for tea of the iced kind (and some sweets as well), bidding farewell to the Yakima Valley as I headed north, as I’ll describe in the next report.
First published on TheSunbreak.com on September 28, 2010.