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, has 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 has harbored a dream of one day opening a restaurant. That dream will become a reality Thursday the day Tamale Guy Chicago should open at 2018 W. Chicago Avenue for carryout.
Velez is using money from a GoFundMe to open the restaurant inside the former Whisk in West Town with his friends Pierre and Kristin Vega. Donations totaled more than $34,000, which helps, as Pierre Vega estimates they’ve 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 shifts are grueling. But through tamales, Velez has been able to provide for his family. One of his sons, Osmar Abad Cruz, is visiting this week from San Diego (he translated parts of the interview for his father). Tamales helped send Abad Cruz to San Diego State University, and Velez is hopeful that new restaurant will eventually help send Abad Cruz 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 says.
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 Latinx people don’t like the word “tamale,” preferring “tamal.” But “tamale” was easier for Americans to recognize.
“It’s got to be ‘the Tamale Guy,’” Velez says.
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, a typical scene for 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 drunk 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 says.
Ferdinand returned to Mexico while Velez continued selling tamales. Bouncers and loyal fans started to look out for him, keeping him safe. His friendly demeanor makes him fast friends with crowds.
“He’s a great man,” Abad Cruz says of his father.
After each late night — he says he sleeps only a few hours a day — Velez woke up early to visit the stores buying the ingredients he needs 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 call himself “jefe,” would take another nap once the food hit the stove. But he’s particular. Abad Cruz, who also remembers making salsa verde, recalls his father scolding him and his aunt for putting too much chicken in a tamale. 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.
Despite that beaming smile, Abad Cruz says his father has “experienced darkness.” He’s been married twice. He’s had bouts of alcoholism and has trust issues. They stem from when he’d send a portion of his paycheck back home to Mexico with the understanding that the money would be used to build a house. No house was ever built.
Velez says he had many offers when word got out that he was opening a restaurant, but it was hard to know whether he could trust his potential partners. Many of them wanted large shares of the profit, and Velez feared he was being taken advantage of. That’s why the Vegas are so important to Velez.
“I’ve known him for a long time; he has a big heart, he’s earnest,” Velez says about Pierre Vega.
Pierre Vega marvels at the friendship that has developed between the Vegas and Velez. One moment stands out to Vega: The two were at Bar DeVille, the now-closed tavern a short walk from where Velez’s restaurant stands, when Vega saw a food truck parked outside.
“One day I want to buy a food truck for you like that one,” Vega said to Velez.
When COVID-19 closed bars, Velez no longer had his usual marketplace for his tamales. He switched to home delivery. Customers could call or text him — the phone number was widely shared via social media — and he’d bring tamales directly to fans. As he was undocumented and working without a license, there were concerns about the attention, even though his business was more than 20 years old.
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.
In May, a series of anonymous complaints led the city to send a cease-and-desist letter to Velez for not operating a business with a license. Residents in the West Loop didn’t like that the pop-up’s customers, who purchased tamales online, were lining up outside to pick up their food. Despite rumors, all the money went to Velez.
Velez needed help translating the letter to Spanish. After a friend helped him read it, he “sat down in the living room and started crying.” The threat to his business, something he’s worked so hard to build, was devastating.
“For so many years I have been working, and no one’s gotten sick from my tamales in 20-something years,” Velez says.
Adrian Apodaca — Abad Cruz’s partner — asks whether the West Loop’s reaction was racially motivated. Abad Cruz, a former DREAMer and current DACA recipient, chimes in: “It’s very scary; it’s still scary for him every day. Particularly how this country is right now and its attitude toward immigrants.”
After the cease-and-desist letter, fans started the aforementioned GoFundMe to help Velez, putting him in the position to open a restaurant. Kristin Vega invites anyone who made complaints to enjoy a tamale on their back patio. They’ve got the proper licensing now, and Claudio won’t be stopped.
A few Chicago restaurants have owners who are essential to the 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 says his father had been talking about opening a restaurant for as long he can remember. Now, finally, he’s close to achieving his version of the American dream, by adding 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. Opening Thursday for carryout only.