Chicago’s bars have been closed since March 17, and while some taverns have started to sell beer and wine to go, another familiar part of the city’s culture has been also forced to adjust: The Tamale Guy. Claudio Velez is the superhero without a cape who routinely makes his way through Chicago’s bars holding a red or blue cooler full of plastic bags filled with pork, cheese, or chicken tamales. This week, without bars full of potential customers, Velez has tested out home delivery.
For more than a decade, Velez has sold his tamales inside bars that don’t have kitchens, rescuing hungry customers — often arriving late at night when patrons need sustenance to soak up alcohol, walking by tables and saying one word: “Tamales?” His popularity in Wicker Park, Bucktown, West Town, and Logan Square has inspired imitators. He is a beloved figure in Chicago’s tavern scene at bars like Innertown Pub, Green Eye Lounge, Bucktown Pub, and the dearly departed Club Foot. He shows up a bars almost at random. There is even a Twitter account that tracks him, but it’s not always super reliable. There’s an element of luck when bumping into Tamale Guy. For many, he’s a myth that needs to be seen to be believed.
Earlier this week, Velez’s alleged phone number began circulating on private social media accounts, announcing he would be testing out delivery. It looked like a mirage, a false flag for hope as America dealt with the COVID-19 outbreak. Because Velez’s tamales, which come six in a plastic bag in corn husks, also carry nostalgia. They remind fans of the times they spent in Chicago taverns.
Wanting to verify the number, Eater Chicago dialed the number which went directly to voicemail. Within a minute of leaving back a call number, Velez called back to ask how many tamales we wanted and where to deliver them. Though he often only said one word to customers at bars, his voice throughout the phone was unmistakably familiar.
A little more than an hour later, Velez’s texted us back writing that he’s nearby. He parked in front of the address, hops out and grabs the tamales from his backseat. Steam erupts from the cooler in back.
Velez said he’s doing well. His business is uniquely suited to the state’s restrictions, and he’d been taking the proper safety precautions. He didn’t want his phone number to be published. He wants to keep his operations small. He did drop this bit of news before he pulled away: He wants to open a restaurant. In this period of uncertainty, it was too early to grill Velez on his plans. He said he’d reach out when time came.
As far as the tamales, they brought back memories of cheap beers, pool tables, and waiting for the jukebox to play our favorite songs. The tamales held the same texture and flavor with fluffy masa and plump chicken or pork. They still go well with the salsa verde provided in small, plastic ramekins. Perhaps it was because we enjoyed them without alcohol, but they seemed a little saltier. Drinkers do need extra electrolytes after several beers.
So if this weekend, when firing up video conferencing to hang out with friends for a virtual happy hour at home, if Chicagoans are hungry, and no one else can help, and if they can find him, maybe they can order from the Tamale Guy.