Now it’s easy to find Ta­male Guy

After two decades of sell­ing in bars, the beloved ven­dor opens a restau­rant

Chicago Sun-Times - - TASTE - BY ASHOK SELVAM

Clau­dio Velez is a leg­end in Chicago. For two decades, he’s as­sumed the iden­tity of “The Ta­male Guy,” a man pow­ered by a red plas­tic cooler filled with zip-close bags full of fresh tamales and green salsa.

Velez, for the most part, re­mained an enigma while sell­ing tamales to grate­ful — and many times ine­bri­ated — bar cus­tomers.

Though the Ta­male Guy loves the bar scene, the 55-year-old kept a low pro­file. For years Velez har­bored a dream of one day open­ing a restau­rant. That dream be­came a re­al­ity last Thurs­day when Ta­male Guy Chicago opened for car­ry­out at 2018 W. Chicago Av­enue.

The line be­gan to form be­fore 11 a.m. down Chicago Av­enue in and front of the new restau­rant from Velez and part­ners Pierre and Kristin Vega.

The tamales were sold out by noon; if cus­tomers didn’t or­der on­line they were out of luck. Still, the line stretched to more than 40 peo­ple out­side wait­ing to pick up their food from one of Chicago’s most beloved chefs.

As of 12:30 p.m., Velez said he had made about 1,000 tamales.

Velez’s tra­di­tional tamales — pork, chicken, and queso con ra­jas — are featured on the menu. He nor­mally uses lard in the recipes, but Pierre Vega says he wants to even­tu­ally elim­i­nate the in­gre­di­ent. Only the “snack tamales” made with corn are ve­gan now. They want to serve ve­gan food to ex­pand their cus­tomer base. Those tamales are wrapped in corn husks. They are also avail­able wrapped in ba­nana leaves to make the dish more Oax­a­can style; Velez is from Aca­pulco.

Al­though there is a back pa­tio, the restau­rant for now re­mains car­ry­out-only; a ta­ble blocked the din­ing room cov­ered with bags filled with food. But there are also stylish Tshirts featuring the Ta­male Guy’s sig­na­ture red cooler.

Velez used money from a GoFundMe to open the restau­rant in­side the former Whisk lo­ca­tion in West Town. Donations to­taled more than $34,000, which helped a lot, as Pierre Vega es­ti­mates they spent $45,000 on ren­o­va­tions.

Tamales rep­re­sent more than bar snacks for Velez. His reg­u­lar sched­ule of com­ing home in the wee hours of the morn­ing and wak­ing up early isn’t easy, and the work shifts are gru­el­ing. But through tamales, Velez has been able to pro­vide for his fam­ily. One of his sons, Os­mar Abad Cruz, vis­it­ing from San Diego (he trans­lated parts of this in­ter­view for his fa­ther) at­tended San Diego State Univer­sity thanks to his fa­ther’s sales of tamales, and Velez is hope­ful the new restau­rant will even­tu­ally help send him to law school.

De­spite his years sell­ing tamales, Velez lacked restau­rant ex­pe­ri­ence. Pierre Vega has plenty. He’s worked at Moto, Same Day Cafe, Promon­tory, Three Aces, San Soo Korean BBQ, and the Bed­ford. The lat­ter is where he met Kristin Vega, a vet­eran bar­tender who worked at Easy Bar and other tav­erns on Di­vi­sion Street, prime stops along Velez’s ta­male trail. When Velez ap­proached Pierre Vega with the idea to open a restau­rant, Vega de­murred, but Velez — as usual — was per­sis­tent: “I think he got me drunk,” Pierre Vega said.

Pierre Vega hopes to get to the point where the restau­rant can run with­out Velez’s daily in­put. That way he can rest, and per­haps spend more time with his daugh­ters (Anna is 6 and Ur­sula is 4; Velez says hang­ing out with the girls is his fa­vorite pas­time). But Pierre Vega and Abad Cruz agree that the Ta­male Guy’s work ethic means that they’ll strug­gle to keep him away.

The trio were go­ing to call the restau­rant Clau­dio’s, but the Ve­gas quickly re­al­ized that Velez had built a rec­og­niz­able brand. Loyal cus­tomers wear Ta­male Guy T-shirts, paint their nails with his car­i­ca­ture, and know to look out for the red cooler where Velez stores his tamales.

Velez is aware that some Lati­nos don’t like the word “ta­male” (pro­nounced tah-MAHlee), pre­fer­ring the prop­erly spelled sin­gu­lar “tamal.” But “ta­male” was eas­ier for Amer­i­cans to rec­og­nize, he said.

“It’s got to be ‘The Ta­male Guy,’” Velez said.

Velez left Aca­pulco 23 years ago and ar­rived in Amer­ica un­doc­u­mented. He was 22 years old, with­out any fam­ily in Amer­ica. He found a room in a Wicker Park apart­ment, near the cor­ner of Di­vi­sion Street and Mar­ion Court, shar­ing the space with seven oth­ers im­mi­grants. Rent was $150 per month. Velez paid that with a job at a Handy Andy Home Im­prove­ment store.

A man named Fer­di­nand be­came Velez’s only friend in the city. Fer­di­nand taught him the art of the ta­male. He took his friend on nightly bar runs sell­ing tamales, and they’d drink with cus­tomers and bar work­ers, mak­ing new friends. But the good times were brief. Velez shares a story of a car crash, when he and Fer­di­nand were driv­ing from bar to bar. Velez didn’t share many de­tails, but says the im­pact sent him fly­ing through the car’s wind­shield. His in­juries weren’t se­ri­ous, but Fer­di­nand’s were: “He was never the same,” Velez said.

Fer­di­nand re­turned to Mex­ico while Velez con­tin­ued sell­ing tamales here. Bounc­ers and loyal fans started to look out for Velez, keep­ing him safe. His friendly de­meanor made him fast friends with crowds.

“He’s a great man,” Abad Cruz said of his fa­ther.

After each late night — he said he sleeps only a few hours a day — Velez woke up early to visit stores to pur­chase the in­gre­di­ents he needed for his tamales. Then he’d head home, where his sis­ters and chil­dren as­sisted him in mak­ing about 500 tamales a day. Velez, who has taken to call­ing him­self “jefe,” would take an­other nap once the food hit the stove.

After the nap, Velez would get up around 5 p.m. with the hope of be­ing packed up and out the door by 7 p.m. De­pend­ing on the day (week­ends were busier) he’d de­liver 500 to 800 tamales every night, vis­it­ing about 50 bars. Velez, who speaks a mix­ture of English and Span­ish, holds five fin­gers up, rep­re­sent­ing five min­utes: the max­i­mum time he wants to spend at each stop.

Velez and the Ve­gas hope to part­ner with bars, with Pierre Vega plan­ning to chauf­feur Velez around town with a car full of tamales. They as­pire to be the food part­ners tav­erns need dur­ing the pan­demic: The city is al­low­ing bars to part­ner with restau­rants or cater­ers so that they can stay open and serve cus­tomers on side­walks. Velez has al­ready spo­ken with restau­ra­teur Adolfo Gar­cia about serv­ing ex­clu­sive shrimp tamales at the Diver in River North.

A few Chicago restau­rants have own­ers who are es­sen­tial to the din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Hot Doug’s, owned by Doug Sohn, is in that group, and Velez is, too. Hear­ing his sig­na­ture cry of “tamales!” bright­ens most peo­ple’s nights as they sit at a bar talk­ing to friends. Abad Cruz says he used to try sell­ing the tamales, but many cus­tomers saw him as an im­poster.

Velez is aware that im­i­ta­tors are out there, and he doesn’t view them as ri­vals — he’s even friends with one ven­dor. He re­spects the hus­tle. Abad Cruz said his fa­ther had been talk­ing about open­ing a restau­rant for as long he can re­mem­ber. Now, fi­nally, has achieved his ver­sion of the Amer­i­can dream, be­com­ing a new ad­di­tion to Chicago’s vi­brant se­lec­tion of Mex­i­can restau­rants.

Abad Cruz ar­gues with his fa­ther, say­ing San Diego of­fers su­pe­rior Mex­i­can food.

“Chicago is the best,” Velez says. “The Ta­male Guy says so.”

Ta­male Guy Chicago, 2018 W. Chicago Av­enue; car­ry­out only.

Orig­i­nally pub­lished on chicago.eater.com.

GAR­RETT SWEET/EATER CHICAGO

Clau­dio Velez, the Ta­male Guy.

AN­THONY VAZQUEZ/SUN-TIMES

Owner Claudi Velez (right) and an em­ployee pre­pare tamales on Tues­day at Ta­male Guy Chicago in Ukrainian Vil­lage.

GAR­RETT SWEET/EATER CHICAGO

Pierre Vega (left) and Clau­dio Velez and their sig­na­ture red ta­male cool­ers.

AN­THONY VAZQUEZ/SUN-TIMES

The in­te­rior of Ta­male Guy Chicago is cur­rently set up or pick-up or­ders only.

AN­THONY VAZQUEZ/SUN-TIMES

Ta­male Guy Chicago is lo­cated at 2018 W. Chicago Av­enue.

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