It was balmy this past Monday evening in Walla Walla, as anticipation for spring fun filled the air. In the industrial park just past the airport, a stream of cars and trucks was filling the grassy parking area behind Burwood Brewing Company’s barn-shaped brewery and tap room. A five-piece band was wrapping up its sound check on the stage outside. And most of the 18 food trucks lining a walkway were already dishing out their specialities.

The first Food Truck Night of 2019 was underway, and the choices all seemed too good to resist. The selection at Andrae’s Kitchen included VooDoo Fries, made with Cajun spice, pulled pork and pickled peppers. Meanwhile, hot dogs garnished with arugula, bacon chutney and maple cream cheese beckoned from the Doggie Style Gourmet trailer. The lineup at the Fast & Curryous included ghost-chili chicken and popular Indian dishes. And the soft-serve ice cream at Bright’s Candies reminded me to save room for dessert.

The time for spring fun has sprung in Walla Walla. And, as was the case at Food Truck Night, there are so many cool things to see, do, taste and explore.

[Photo: Walla Walla’s Shop Singers played at the first Food Truck Night of 2019.]

An epic journey

I’ll start off by sharing a little about the fascinating couple who just opened The Barn B&B, a new inn on the west side of town. In a career spanning close to 40 years, Anand Rao’s jobs in the hospitality industry took him around the world, from Nairobi to Kuwait City to Khartoum to London to Paris. In the 1990s, The Ritz-Carlton company brought him to the United States.

He and his wife, Naina (they married in 1978), were living in Maryland in the early 2000s. They developed their affection for the Northwest on visits to see their son, who was attending college in Seattle and, later, Portland. An article in a business magazine drew their attention to Walla Walla. Soon, they were planning to open a bed-and-breakfast in the area. So, in 2007, they purchased 10 acres of farmland along the Little Walla Walla River.

Then Anand took a job in Bangkok with Six Senses Hotels. “I felt that, after working in all these other countries, it would be great to understand Asian hospitality,” he explains.

While in Bangkok, Naina sketched out floor plans for their future inn. They purchased cushion covers for the rooms they planned to decorate from the Jim Thompson House Museum. Then Naina created a series of paintings, on dried lotus leaves, to complement the colors of each set of these covers.

When Anand retired in 2017, the couple was finally able to move to Walla Walla. Still, it took nearly two years to complete the permitting, planning and construction of their inn. While a few final pieces are still coming together, their seven-room B&B is now open for business.

Six of the suites, about 630 square feet each, occupy a building that resembles a Dutch barn from the outside. And the seventh unit, the Granary suite, sits inside a detached structure that looks like a mini–grain silo. On the inside, the rooms offer stylish, modern comfort. Hardwood floors, luxurious linens, wine fridges and glass sinks with stone backsplashes. Each unit also offers a garden patio with an outdoor shower (in addition to the indoor shower in each unit’s bathroom.) And the art in each room includes one of the paintings that Naina created in Bangkok.

The couple’s eyes light up when they describe their cuisine, prepared by chef Liz Garza, a recent grad of Walla Walla Community College’s culinary program. Liz has reached out to local farms for ingredients. For example, the eggs come from cage-free chickens raised nearby.

On one recent morning, the breakfast menu included freshly baked scones, a granola bowl and Bombay Toast Kejriwal (toast with cheese, green onions, cilantro and a fried egg). And Naina and Liz continue to experiment with recipes. I happened to drop by as Liz was baking a test batch of truffle-oil infused scones (they were delicious). And Naina and Liz are developing a recipe for (gluten-free) chickpea pancakes.

Guests can drop by the dining room for breakfast anytime between 8:30 and 9:30 a.m. Seating includes individual tables and a communal table in the middle. The Raos also host complimentary, family-style dinners for guests on Monday and Thursday nights. And their Friday evening wine happy hours will feature pizzas cooked on their charcoal-fired pizza oven.

Eritage’s Second Phase

Speaking of the latest “inn” things in Walla Walla, the team at Eritage Resort has set May 31 as the opening date for the resort’s new villas. The secluded resort, surrounded by vineyards and wheat fields, about 15 minutes north of downtown, generated buzz when it opened last summer, with 10 suites. (The new villas will give it 20 total units.) Its restaurant was created by revered Seattle-based chef Jason Wilson, a James Beard Award winner. And the resort is managed by Fire & Vine Hospitality, formed through a partnership between Wilson and the El Gaucho restaurant group.

Earlier this year, the Eritage restaurant, which is open to non-resort guests for dinner, introduced its Sunday-night prime rib dinners. The special includes a grilled 12-ounce prime rib steak, whipped Yukon Gold potatoes, a seasonal vegetable (such as broccoli rabe, this past Sunday) and horseradish cream. At only $30 per person, it’s a pretty good value, especially since the restaurant also waives half the ($20) corkage fee on Sundays. So, if you’re looking for a meal to pair with that luscious cab sauv or syrah you just picked up while visiting the local wineries, Sunday–fun day at Eritage is a great option.

It’s been a busy year for Fire & Vine on both sides of the Cascades. In recent months, the group opened Aerlume near the Seattle waterfront and designed the menu for Teatro ZinZanni’s new Woodinville location. In Walla Walla, the group opened two restaurants this past fall in downtown’s historic train depot, in addition to Eritage. On one side of the depot, which underwent a thorough renovation, Walla Walla Steak Co. offers a dark, intimate, old school–inspired setting for digging into classic cuts of beef. Beverage options include an all-star selection of Walla Walla wines and tantalizing cocktails. On the opposite side of a shared kitchen, Crossbuck Brewing offers a casual, airy setting to quench your thirst and nosh. Its selection of house-made brews continues to grow, and its refined pub grub menu includes ground-brisket burgers.

Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it

I wasn’t planning on trying a wine slushy. Ever. But as I walked down Main Street earlier this week, the banner promoting wine slushies outside the patio at Plumb Cellars caught my eye.

Crandall Kyle, the winery’s owner/co-vintner, says his winery’s concept for slushies came about in 2015. That summer, the Gentlemen of the Road tour was going to bring tens of thousands of people to Walla Walla. In anticipation of the crowds, Kyle and his partners wanted to offer a refreshing beverage. So they brought in a couple of slushy makers, like you’d see at a convenience store, and developed recipes.

Four years later, the slushies are as popular as ever. The lightly sweetened sangria slushy is made with Plumb’s red table wine, a blend of syrah and sangiovese. And the slightly tart margarita slushy contains viognier. I preferred the former. But the tasting-room manager said most people choose the “mixed” option. A single slushy, which contains the equivalent of a full glass of wine, costs $10. And the tasting room stays open late on Fridays and Saturdays, with live music. Just sayin’.

A savory pair

Another new downtown restaurant, Hattaway’s on Alder, specializes in Southern-inspired cuisine. And this year, the restaurant is preparing the menu for food-paired wine tastings at Pepper Bridge Winery. At last week’s Taste Washington Grand Tasting, Hattaway’s served a duck pâté with shallot-apple chutney, and other goodness, on crostini. The recommended wine pairing was Pepper Bridge’s Trine, a Bordeaux-style blend, available one table over. The food brought out a certain jammyness in the wine. And if it was any indication of how this budding partnership is going to play out, this is going to be a good year to visit Pepper Bridge.

In case you were wondering

At Food Truck Night, I decided on a pulled pork sandwich from A Wing & A Prayer Barbecue & Catering, plus a slice of pepperoni from Why Not Pizza. And I washed it all down with a pint of Burwood’s Summit Pale. This refreshing, dry-hopped ale was poured with a head that stayed frothy to the end. Food Truck Night takes place on the first Monday of each month through October. And it attracts just about all walks from the local community, from families with young children to retirees. In this respect, it offers another cool way to soak in local flavors on a visit to Walla Walla.