Hermiston is experiencing something of a food Renaissance, with restaurants featuring the cuisines of several different countries springing up in the last few years.
A yet-to-open Italian restaurant is the latest in a string of eateries in town offering new options to diners. Last week, an Indian restaurant opened in the old Stockman’s Steakhouse, and in November, a second sushi restaurant opened up on 395 and Elm — only a year after the first one.
Gaurav Bhatia, co-owner of the new Indian Kitchen and Steakhouse, said he thinks people are eager for some different choices.
“People have been asking,” he said. “People want to try new stuff. They wanted to try Chinese, Thai, Japanese — and Indian, too.”
Bhatia’s restaurant will feature a rotating buffet with Indian vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, as well as some of the American fare featured at the old Stockman’s restaurant.
He said he knew the combination was unusual, but people seemed to be interested even if they were new to Indian food.
Zoe Zhou, the manager of Shiki Hibachi Sushi, the second sushi restaurant to open in Hermiston in a year, said they put a lot of effort into making the atmosphere, as well as the food, authentic.
“You come in and feel like it’s a Japanese restaurant,” she said. “It’s eye-catching, the food tastes right, and good service.”
She said there are some challenges with operating a sushi restaurant in a town like Hermiston, such as its distance from the ocean.
The key, she said, is having an experienced chef who knows how to prepare fish. They also have several fish vendors, who deliver products on different days.
She said now, Japanese cuisine is popular enough that most people come in knowing what they want.
“Our main point is to try and offer what they want to eat, and to try to explain all the options,” she said.
She said the restaurant’s hibachi grill — in which food is cooked in front of customers — has drawn customers from Walla Walla and Kennewick, where the company also has sushi restaurants.
Lawan Benson, owner of Lawan’s Thai Garden, has had a restaurant on Highway 395 for about six years. She said there are specific dishes for which customers keep coming back.
“At every table, one person will be eating Pad Thai,” she said. Benson spoke with translation assistance from her daughter, Ann Onphian.
“A lot of people like my mom’s peanut sauce,” Onphian said. “We have a customer that drives down from Tri-Cities once a week for it.”
Onphian said when they first opened, the other Thai restaurant, Taste of Thai, was already open.
“People were very surprised that a small town has two Thai restaurants,” she said.
But while they occasionally have slow days, Onphian said business has been fairly consistent since they opened.
She said many seem to be drawn in by the variety, as well as the healthy options available.
“We can make pretty much everything vegetarian,” she said.
In the summer, Benson said, she offsets costs by using vegetables from her own garden to make the dishes. The family used to travel to the Pendleton and LaGrande farmers markets, and sell vegetables in Hermiston.
An interest in healthy food has encouraged new restaurants to set up shop in Hermiston, as well.
Sant Elmo’s Italian restaurant has yet to open a storefront, but has been doing deliveries and catering for the past month, out of a building near Westland Road in Hermiston.
Co-owner and chef Silvio Ximenez said they are focusing on fresh ingredients, and making what they can with organic and local food.
“Some of the things, like cheeses, have to be imported from Italy,” he said. “But we’re trying to get things as fresh as possible.”
Ximenez said the focus will be on Tuscan cuisine. Though new to Hermiston, Ximenez has spent several decades in the restaurant business, attending culinary school in Italy and working in Las Vegas for the last several years. His friend, Tacos Xavi owner Luis Diaz, invited him to help open an Italian restaurant a few months ago.
“We wanted to give people another option,” Diaz said, adding that they had heard people express interest in having Italian food in Hermiston.
Ximenez said they don’t have a specific opening date yet, and are waiting to receive their liquor license. To order food, customers can call 541-314-5489.
Hermiston has been home to several restaurants serving Chinese and Mexican food for several years — local favorites include Panda Inn, Fortune Garden, Ixtapa and La Palma, as well as several taco trucks and taquerias.
As the town’s population grows, its appetite for different food options has grown as well.
“As of lately, I’ve seen more variety,” said Otey Muniz, a Hermiston resident eating lunch at the Indian Kitchen and Steakhouse on Friday. “I think people want more.”