Thursday was an all-nighter for Claudio Velez that led to five hours of sleep after making his way to 20 bars while making the tamale drops that have endeared him to Chicagoans for more than 20 years. Velez started his workday in the morning with loud applause from customers sitting at Lone Wolf’s 23-table sidewalk patio along Randolph Street. Velez and his family launched their new operation, the Authentic Tamale Guy, from the West Loop bar and later that night he stopped at bars like Rainbo Club, Hideout Inn, and Bucktown Pub.
The new agreement with Lone Wolf gives Velez a base of operations where he can have a hybrid business of serving customers his classic tamales with corn husks and green salsa at his home tavern while having the option to bar hop afterward. The first customer at Lone Wolf lined up around 10:30 a.m. Thursday and Velez says he and his family made 1,500 tamales before selling out.
Thursday felt like the old days for him as a Chicago nightlife legend who fed hungry bar customers at taverns without food service. On opening night, he mingled with customers, took selfies, and cracked smiles with bartenders who haven’t seen him since before the pandemic. Velez hopes this new partnership with Lone Wolf will work out better for him compared to his Ukrainian Village restaurant. A falling out with those partners has led to a pending lawsuit. Since one of those partners, Kristin Vega, was a longtime worker at Easy Bar, he’s staying clear of that Wicker Park spot: “I don’t want to start any trouble,” Velez says, with his son, Osmar Abad Cruz translating.
Velez’s story has been well chronicled, from his rockstar status, trouble with the city due to West Loop complaints, and the opening of his first restaurant. He’s gotten used to the attention and applause. He even received another ovation in September as he was discharged from Rush University Medical Center following a 35-day stay for treatment for COVID-19. Abad Cruz reflected on how far his father has come, remembering seeing his dad in the hospital, staring blankly into space with the disease affecting his breathing and senses.
“I just want to him to do well,” Abad Cruz says. “He deserves this.”
The Tamale Guy did test out home delivery last year after COVID-19 closed bars and cut him off from his customer base. While Velez says his dream is to eventually open another restaurant, visiting Chicago’s bars are what perks him up. Through the years, part of the fun was the luck involved in randomly running into Velez at a bar. The Tamale Guy’s tendencies and routes were unknown. Velez still will not publicize his routes and that preserves some of the excitement for old-school fans. Delivery will eventually be made available in a week or two so folks can plan their night around tamales.
Velez says he plans on visiting on another 20 bars or so on Friday night. He’s stopped drinking alcohol for a bit, agreeing to resume in late August to coincide with his son’s birthday: “There’s too many problems with alcohol,” he says.
Still, interacting with fans remains his favorite pastime. Velez has been delivering tamales for more than 20 years around Chicago after immigrating from Mexico. With the help of his son, they’ve been searching for a licensed kitchen space to make tamales since last year. They connected with a Facebook group, True West Loop, who introduced them to Lone Wolf’s owners at Heisler Hospitality (Estereo, Queen Mary). While delivering tamales to bars, Velez and his family would make food from their homes. Chicago’s cottage food laws are restrictive, allowing very few foods to be made at home. Items like jams and baked goods can only sold at farmers markets. In other parts of the country, including the LA area, cottage operations flourished during the pandemic. Though they’ve kept all the recipes the same “it’s a lot different” working at Lone Wolf. There’s less worry about fines from the city, which something the officials threatened last year in cease-and-desist letters prompted by complaints after Velez sold tamales at a West Loop park: “We feel more safe and at peace because there’s a license to cook,” Velez says.
On Thursday night, a customer gave Velez a $100 tip, and he says he could feel his fans’s love throughout the night. At 56, he says he’s determined to keep up the pace: “If I have the strength, I’ll go ahead and make it work,” he says.
On Saturday night, a video crew from Vice Media will accompany him on his tamale run. He’s been popular with the media with TV and print interviews. Velez also says he plans on dropping off any leftover food at the end of the night and feeding people without housing who live under Chicago’s bridges. He says he needs to give back to the community that’s supported him.
“The people, they care lot,” Velez says.
The Authentic Tamale Guy, inside Lone Wolf, 806 W. Randolph Street, open noon to midnight, Wednesday through Monday.