Now it’s easy to find Tamale Guy
After two decades of selling in bars, the beloved vendor opens a restaurant
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.
Claudio Velez, the Tamale Guy.
Owner Claudi Velez (right) and an employee prepare tamales on Tuesday at Tamale Guy Chicago in Ukrainian Village.
Pierre Vega (left) and Claudio Velez and their signature red tamale coolers.
The interior of Tamale Guy Chicago is currently set up or pick-up orders only.
Tamale Guy Chicago is located at 2018 W. Chicago Avenue.