In the Pink

Waking up in the restaurant business

By Neil Zawicki

Maria Soto flips a sauté pan full of sliced prime rib and onion. It’s the tail-end of the lunch rush at the Pink House Café in downtown Independence, and she’s dishing up another order of the daily special.

Maria Soto and Jorge Hernandez now own the restaurant and run it with their family. ##Photos by Neil Zawicki

She tosses the pan with the deft skill of a veteran cook, sending the contents in tight rapid cartwheels above the stove, flames from the burner flaring orange, the hiss of searing beef filling the air. She’s been slinging food at the decade-old eatery for the past eight years, but one element has changed since she first took the job: She now owns the place.

Out front, Soto’s daughter, Brenda Farley, greets diners, seating them in one of the quiet, well-appointed dining rooms in this 145-year-old Gothic style house. Now a beacon of high-end fare in this town of nearly 10,000, the Pink House was established in 2009, when local developer Paul Reitter bought the building for $500, moved it to its present spot just off Main Street, had it renovated, and then hired a chef to design a menu. While it’s the third location for the home, this is the first time it’s been used as a restaurant.

With its cozy rooms, tight stairways and decor reminiscent of the era in which it was built, the Pink House has gained a following. Guests drive not only from town, but also Corvallis and Albany to enjoy such favorites as Hungarian Chicken Paprikash served over cheese tortellini, a salmon filet, Bratwurst with Applekraut, and Korean-style beef short ribs. Burgers are offered as well, along with a number of homemade desserts, including a locally made rum cake.

The house was built in 1873. ##Photos by Neil Zawicki

The menu was designed to be diverse. Farley says it was a big help that her mom had been preparing every dish for seven years before her family took over in October 2017. She’s known Reitter since she was five years old, and was surprised and excited when he decided only two months before retiring to offer the restaurant to her mom.

“He really wanted it in the hands of people who would keep it just the way it has always been,” she said. “So before he put it up for sale, he asked my mom and dad if they wanted it.”

Farley, who’s married with three kids, works with her brother, sister, mom and dad, Jorge Hernandez, to run the restaurant, while Reitter still owns the building. Hernandez, like Soto, moved to the U.S. from Mexico in 1989 and has experience as a cook in commercial kitchens. Today, they live on a farm outside Independence and have settled into their new role as restaurateur. Hernandez smiles when asked if it’s different when you own the place. Farley adds the experience has been an adventure.

“Paul told me, ‘You’re going to go from having a job here to owning it,” she said. “He was right. It’s a 24-7 job,” she said. “It was a huge learning process. There was a lot of trial and error...”

Brenda Farley presents a bottle of locally made Redgate wine at Pink House Café in Independence. ##Photos by Neil Zawicki

Farley says summer is the most unpredictable season, explaining several times her dad has unexpectedly run to the store for ingredients. But maybe the biggest education for Farley has been wine. The Pink House serves Willamette Valley and Redgate to its guests, and as the manager, she has made it her business to become as much of a wine expert as possible.

“I’ve really had to learn about wines,” she said. “To me, wine was just wine, but I’ve learned it’s not.”

As part of her education, Farley sat down for self-imposed pairing sessions, in which she sampled different types with all the menu items. This, she said, really drove it home for her that some wines simply do not go with some dishes.

“It’s really true,” she laughed.

For the Chicken Paprikash, for example, she says with confidence that a nice Tempranillo would pair well.

Another challenge: the regulars — the same groups come on certain days of the week. When her family assumed charge of the place, she said there was concern they were going to change the menu. Because the food was popular, and also because her mom had the menu down, there was simply no reason to mess with a good thing.

With the regulars, Farley says, comes the small town effect, where people call one another by their first names and “usual” orders are easily remembered, giving the Pink House a homey feel and a family spirit among the diners and, quite literally, the staff.

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