Yakima, to me, is epiphany.

Out from under the gray lid of Western Washington, the sun glints off your car as it crests bare, gold hills. Follow the concrete ribbon through orchards and down to the wide streets of Yakima: This is where I saw my first real cowboy, and suddenly understood where tight Wranglers fit into the scheme of things.

"The Palm Springs of Washington" is notable for its 300 days of sunshine a year, but it's the abundant produce grown in the Yakima Valley that makes me want to sing. (The valley is home to our state's largest Latino community, and many of the growers and farm workers who cultivate the produce are Latino.) As Seattle's farmer's market season closes, the pain of withdrawal from Yakima's gorgeous organic vegetables can be offset by a visit to downtown Seattle's Yakima Grill.

Tucked into the side of the innocuous Vance Hotel, Yakima Grill's new fall menu is a ballad to the growers who supply its array of peppers, squash, and tomatoes--a true and tasty celebration of the Yakima Valley. Chef Daniel Gonzales has most of his produce delivered by one Zillah, WA farmer several times a week, and acknowledges that this relationship informs his cooking. Gonzales wields these ingredients skillfully, and is most successful with his reinvented and classic New World, nuevo-Mexican dishes. The Large Tapas Platter ($25), while unswervingly Large, was not particularly inspired; "Platter" and "Assortment" are two of my favorite words when it comes to appetizers, but if I had it to do over again, I would have simply ordered the indulgent Camarones con Coco ($7.95), shrimp fried in coconut and dipped in a honey-curry sauce, and the PHENOMENAL ceviche (side, $3.50). By the time I reached entrées, it felt as if the Platter had lodged itself sideways in my torso and was pressing, with great determination, against my waistband. Not only is the Platter large, but each and every plate of food I've eyeballed at this place weighs heavily in the hand of the server (I'd recommend splitting breakfast). Dorado con Hierbas ($16.95) showcased a boxing-glove-sized piece of fish, nicely grilled and prettily, if precariously, perched atop a pumpkin-seed rice cake (yum), rounded out with snappy in-season squash (like my favorite, chayote: a firm, pale green little guy). Sigh. What I returned for, though, wearing looser pants, was the Tamales de Pato ($12.95). Complemented by black beans (firm yet creamy) that were not overcooked (as is so often the case) and tasty rice steeped in rich broth rather than merely dusted with seasonings, the braised-duck-and-almond tamales steamed in banana leaves make for one solid dish. The dark, dark cherry mole sauce croons to the tamale in its throaty, full-bodied harmony, setting off small fires in quiet corners. As evening descends, Yakima Grill's bar fills up with a mixed crowd: some suits, some tourists from the hotel, and some locals, unified by their collective dousing of the tongue with those fishbowl-sized margaritas ($5.50).

Across the street from the Greyhound station, the Vance Hotel is a far cry from what lumber baron Joseph Vance built in the 1920s to lodge his logging employees. In the lobby, dark wood, marble, and stained glass lend a subtle European feeling--quiet and historic, the antithesis of some of the newer hotels downtown. Vance built the Camlin (Cloud Room) and Roosevelt (Von's) hotels as well, and his corporation went on to develop much of the Westlake area. The old-school classiness of the Vance's lobby clashes a bit with the slightly embarrassing (to me) Southwesty-feel of Yakima Grill's décor. But despite my interior decorating preferences, I basked in the comfortable setting--made so by the friendly servers who know their food and emit just the right amount of pheromones. Yakima Grill's overt appreciation of the workers and culture and land that supply our tables is a new, and dare I breathe it, revolutionary twist.

Yakima Grill

612 Stewart St, 956-0639. Open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner 6:30 am-2 am. $$

Price Scale (per entrée)

$ = $10 and under; $$ = $10-20; $$$ = $20 and up.

Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer: Jan 13-Feb 14 at Bagley Wright Theatre
Part theater, part revival, and all power, this one-woman show will have your head nodding and hands clapping!