North First Street in Yakima is an unruly assortment of franchises, small businesses, lodging venues and other lesser-known sites.
Save for a lunch appointment or dinner celebration at a trendy local restaurant such as Gasperetti’s or franchise-favorite Red Lobster, many don’t think of this corridor to U.S. Highway 12 and Interstate 82 as a destination. Currently there are plans to revitalize the area, which are, in part, designed to change the looming perception that the street is riddled with crime and prostitution.
But if you look a few blocks north of Yakima Avenue — past the haphazard billboards and cracked sidewalks — you’ll discover lively eateries and businesses that cater to the residents around them. There are retail delights in this stretch of road.
One such place is Taqueria Los Primos. The taco van could be lost in the many other Mexican cuisine selections in Yakima, but it thrives at its location at 404 N. First St., where it’s been in business for seven years. The taco van operates on a flexible schedule, too, open 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and closing at 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Cook Juan Cornejo has been preparing dishes there for the past five years, and his affability is evident the moment one steps up to order. With short hair under a paper chef’s hat and beard, Cornejo’s friendly smile shows in his eyes as he interacts with patrons. Customers can find authentic versions of old favorites such as tacos, burritos and rice and beans. But Cornejo also prepares dishes many Yakima residents may be unaccustomed to: buche (pork stomach), birria (spicy goat meat) and steak ranchero.
Customers know the drill, ordering abruptly and confidently in Spanish, others in English, with few words exchanged with Cornejo, implying regular visits for lunch or dinner. Between the front counter and a refrigerated display case of cold drinks rests a closed cooler that contains toppings for food, including pico de gallo with cabbage, tomato, cilantro, onion and pepper, radishes and salsas. Those ordering bottles of mineragua, jarritos or Sangria Senorial — which stand out next to bottles of Gatorade — can move to a wash basin near the counter and open their bottled beverages. The tin coffee can full of bottle caps reveals many customers have gone through this routine before.
Close by at 105 E. E St., in the first suite of a shopping complex that faces North First Street, Victoria is open for business as well. Although the exterior is nondescript, Victoria is brimming with colorful clothes, accessories and other items from Mexico, particularly the states of Oaxaca, Yucatan and Veracruz. The shop moved to this location last March, away from its former spot near Gasperetti’s, where it was in business for two years. In broken English, Dora Narez, Victoria’s owner, says the store caters to adults and children alike. “Mostly little girls, some boys.”
Victoria is open every day, with shorter hours on Sundays so employees can attend church. The shop is a small room, but much is packed into it, including items a casual shopper may find surprising. Dresses from Veracruz are on display, along with cowboy hats and other types of hats for men and women, serape (colorfully designed blankets) for adults and children, boots and jackets. An Aztec calendar is the most popular symbol on jackets sold here. Traditional clothes for men, designed to wear in hot weather, are also for sale. Revocos, traditional shawls for women, are available, too. Dora says these shawls are “so important with babies” in order to carry and nurse. Purses, bags, jewelry and accessories, perfumes and lotions sit side-by-side with Gano coffee. Christian music CDs in Spanish are stacked near one counter, while car chargers and pre-paid, long-distance phone cards are for sale in another stand in the shop.
There’s a sense of community in the small shop on First Street; the staff greets and visits easily with a gentleman who appeared to have no desire to purchase or browse, but simply chat. An older gentleman carrying a black bag walked placidly by outside the shop, selling freshly-made tamales, and making Victoria one of his many stops before moving on to the next business.
That same sense of community extends just north to Mi Pueblo. The grocery store at 511 N. First Street — formerly La Bodega Yakimex — has taken on new ownership and management in the past two years. Owner Manpreet Singh and manager Carla Hernandez have worked hard to make sure the store thrives and fulfills its original status as the “first big Mexican store” in the city, says Hernandez.
Mi Pueblo is bright, colorful and neat, with pinatas lining most of the aisles. A one-stop shop, Mi Pueblo (“my town”) specializes in Mexican dishes and treats along with products typically found in other grocery stores. Walking along an aisle next to a stand of Doritos, for instance, is a basket of Mexican cactus, penca de maguey. Near the butcher, customers can choose from a variety of meats as well as freshly made tamales on Saturdays. Birria is also a favorite, which here can consist of marinated pork, beef or even goat. Other highlights are homemade pasole and chicharrones (fried pork rinds). Someone looking to wash down these foods can try homemade frutas aguas, or fruit water in a variety of flavors including strawberry, cantaloupe, pineapple and horchata.
Singh and Hernandez also expanded the store’s produce section, which features fruit and vegetables from local growers. “Those who missed Sunday’s Farmers’ Market can come here, and it’s reasonably priced,” says Hernandez.
One produce treat is a tuna, a fruit that comes from the prickly pear cactus. The tuna can be dressed with lemon juice and spices such as chile, as Hernandez recommends. Filled with hard seeds, a tuna has a similar freshness and texture of a kiwi, but is closer in taste to a honeydew melon or cantaloupe with its mild sweetness. Hernandez says other types of cactus can be made edible by removing its horns before cutting and slicing it. The food can then be boiled over the stove and flavored with pico de gallo or salsa, or put into an omelet.
“We want to make it easier for shopppers, for the community,” says owner Singh. “We try to carry everything.”
A brief venture to North First Street might just expand our definition of what that word “everything” entails.