The line began to form before 11 a.m. down Chicago Avenue in and front of Tamale Guy Chicago, the new restaurant from Claudio Velez and partners Pierre and Kristin Vega. The tamales were sold out as of 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 says he had made about 1,000 tamales. He was out of breath, and expects Friday to be even busier. He was comfortable inside his new kitchen, a change from the home operation where he was assisted by his family for more than 20 years. Tamales have been a family operation for Velez where his sister, Magda, and other family helped him make food which he would deliver to customers at bars across the city. Those patrons often say Velez saved their lives as they’d be drunk and in need of sustenance. A chance appearance of the Tamale Guy — who would appear almost at random — brought them salvation and made their nights memorable.
Velez’s traditional tamales — pork, chicken, and queso con rajas — are available. Velez 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.
There’s a little pressure on Pierre Vega. Velez’s tamales are well known in Chicago. Vega, who’s worked at restaurants like Same Day Cafe in Logan Square and Three Aces in Little Italy, is a veteran chef. He may tinker with some ingredients, but he doesn’t want to ruin the integrity of Velez’s recipes. He’s got more freedom with the desserts. Vega has concocted a strawberry tamale filled with the fruit and strawberry masa. It comes with an agave crema for dipping. Chocolate, vanilla, and guava iterations on their ways.
Returning back to the savory side, eventually the menu will feature specials. Shrimp tamales, for example. They also plan on adding tacos. Chamorro (beef shank) tacos are popular in LA. Velez wants to bring them to Chicago and put them in a crispy tortilla. As fall approaches, coffee will also play a bigger role at the restaurant. So will champurrado, which is a Mexican drink with chocolate and vanilla notes made with masa.
Although there is a back patio, the restaurant is only carryout — a table blocked the dining room covered with bags filled with food. But there are also stylish T-shirts featuring the Tamale Guy’s signature red cooler. A few customers picking up their orders were enticed by the shirt worn by Kristin Vega. While the food was sold, T-shirts were still available. Tamale Guy is a brand, too.
Pierre Vega plans on making regular tamale runs with Velez after the restaurant closes, to supply bars with food so they can remain open during the pandemic and adhere to the city’s regulations. Velez is excited about returning to the bar scene. Patrons have been the source of his income for more than 20 years.
Velez’s friendly demeanor has made him a beloved figure in Chicago. He’s grateful to the bouncers, customers, and industry workers that have looked after him: “Everyone’s good to me,” he says.
One of his sons, Osmar Abad Cruz, says his father has “dreamed of opening a restaurant for as long as I can remember.” It took some luck. Pierre Vega says the building’s landlord fielded a richer offer for the space from Nini’s Deli, the Noble Square Cuban restaurant that closed under a cloud of racism and homophobia. But Velez’s story hooked the landlords, Vega says. The landlords seem to have a pattern. The space’s previous tenants at WHISK, were DACA recipients.
The Tamale Guy, who had his source of income squashed when bars closed, was due for a win. His dream is now a reality as Tamale Guy Chicago is now open.
Tamale Guy Chicago, open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends. Order online.