YAKIMA, Wash. -- On Monday night, Felipe Hernandez and his family walked down the red carpet at the James Beard Foundation Awards gala in Chicago.
But his thoughts were back home in Union Gap, where his staff of 15 were furiously working to meet the growing demand for tamales from his restaurant, Los Hernandez Tamales.
In announcing the restaurant’s selection in January, the Beard Foundation generated new interest in the restaurant and that’s keeping owners, Felipe Hernandez, wife June, daughter Rachel Wilburn and son-in-law Dion Wilburn, busy.
Business “has doubled, maybe tripled,” Felipe Hernandez said in a phone interview from Chicago on Monday.
Foodies, gourmands and oenophiles sometimes characterize the James Beard Foundation awards as the “Oscars of food.” While the public may not be as familiar with them as the Academy Awards, they’re a big deal among gourmets and culinary industry insiders.
The America’s Classics award recognizes restaurants that have “timeless appeal” and “quality food” reflecting the region’s character. Los Hernandez Tamales is the first Washington state restaurant outside of Seattle to receive the award.
Los Hernandez has been run by the Hernandez family since 1990. The restaurant is well known for its seasonal specialty: asparagus tamales, which are only available during the spring harvest.
The restaurant was already a popular destination for foodies throughout the Pacific Northwest, thanks to features in publications such as Sunset magazine and The Seattle Times. That popularity — and media attention — has only exploded since the James Beard Foundation nod.
Many local diners are discovering the restaurant for the first time and even more Western Washington residents are driving across Snoqualmie Pass to get a taste of the award-winning tamales.
“We’re so happy and so pleased with all the support,” Felipe Hernandez said.
But while he’s enjoying the recognition and the short break to attend the awards gala, he’s eager to return to Union Gap and work alongside his employees. The explosion in business has forced everyone to work long hours and he’s focused on making sure that he can produce a sufficient quantity of tamales to meet demand. He anticipates hiring a few more employees.
“We’re trying to make it work,” he said.
Many of those new hires will work at a new West Valley location at the corner of 64th Avenue and West Nob Hill Boulevard. The increased business and construction issues have delayed the opening, but Felipe Hernandez hopes the new site will be ready by early June.
According to the Associated Press, the other winners of the America’s Classics award were: Sun Wah, Chicago (Owners: Kelly Cheng, Laura Cheng and Michael Cheng); Galleria Umberto, Boston (Owners: Paul Deuterio and Ralph Deuterio); El Guero Canelo, Tucson, Ariz. (Owner: Daniel Contreras); Dong Phuong Bakery, New Orleans, La. (Owner: Linh Tran Garza)
Aidian Holder of the Yakima Herald-Republic contributed to this report