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‘Tamale Guy’ Claudio Velez Remains on Ventilator in Critical Condition

Velez, stricken by COVID-19, has shown improvement but could remain at the hospital for a few weeks

A person wearing glasses and a black T-shirt while inside a kitchen.
Claudio Velez at the kitchen of his West Town restaurant.
Garrett Sweet/Eater Chicago
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

Tamale Guy owner Claudio Velez remains on a ventilator and is in critical condition. One of his sons says Velez could remain hospitalized for “a few weeks.” Velez, known throughout Chicago as the “Tamale Guy,” was admitted last week to Rush University Hospital after doctors diagnosed him with COVID-19.

Velez, 55, fell ill earlier in August with breathing difficulties. He had just opened a restaurant, a dream he’s had for 20 years after he began delivering tamales to bars across Chicago as a self-starting entrepreneur. His restaurant, Tamale Guy Chicago, is closed in West Town. His business partners, Pierre and Kristin Vega, had been operating the restaurant without Velez until closing on Friday, August 28, after Velez checked into Rush. Velez was keeping away from the restaurant after he began feeling sick.

One of Velez’s sons, Osmar Abad Cruz, arrived Monday to Chicago after flying in from San Diego. He says his dad is showing slight improvements but is still in the danger zone and under sedatives; doctors expect him to remain hospitalized for a few weeks. Velez’s wife, Betty, and three children in Chicago haven’t been allowed inside the hospital room. Abad Cruz has communicated his father via video calls, but Velez is unable to speak. Cruz says he’ll remain in Chicago while his father stays in the hospital.

Velez’s restaurant, Tamale Guy Chicago, sold out of food on opening day. It was a testament to Velez’s popularity in Chicago — he is known for his kindheartedness and smile. Velez is beloved by patrons and within the bar industry; his food deliveries to bars were seen as a service on late nights. Customers often felt grateful the next morning for bumping into Velez. A bar visit from the Tamale Guy is random — he doesn’t have a set schedule — and it often signals the makings of a good night to many.

His son says his father’s health quickly deteriorated last week. Opening a restaurant was supposed to be the culmination of hard work since Velez arrived from Mexico in search of a new life 23 years ago. Instead, he’s battling the novel coronavirus in the hospital. Doctors tell Abad Cruz that Velez’s case of COVID-19 is one the most severe they’ve seen.

Velez is uninsured. Fans have rallied after one of his business partners started a GoFundMe campaign to pay for his medical expenses. The drive’s goal was $20,000, but as of Monday afternoon, they’ve raised more than $50,000.

Tamale Guy Chicago

2018 West Chicago Avenue, , IL 60622