Claudio Velez has been part of Chicago’s restaurant and bar scene for more than 20 years. The native of Acapulco, Mexico arrived in Chicago without knowing many people or with much money. He worked at a neighborhood home improvement store where he met colleagues who showed him around town. During those tours, he saw how many Chicago dive bars without kitchen had starving customers who, after a few drinks, really could use some food.
Velez solved this problem by making tamales at home, packing them in plastic bags, and transporting them in a red, plastic cooler. On the weekends, Velez visits bars in Wicker Park, Bucktown, and West Town visiting as many as 20 bars a night selling his tamales with salsa verde. The simple food has made many buzzed customers happy throughout the years as they avoided hangovers and enjoyed unwrapping cornhusks and chowing down on tamales filled with chicken, pork, and cheese. Velez’s yell of “tamales!” was a sign of good times and he gained a cult following. There was also mystery as he did not publish his route and fans didn’t know where he’d pop up every night. He became a bit of an urban myth.
Nicknamed “the Tamale Guy,” the 56-year-old Velez finally made his dream of owning a restaurant a reality in 2020, but it’s been a bumpy road during the pandemic with assorted highs and lows. Read all of Eater Chicago’s coverage of his journey and what the Tamale Guy means to Chicago and its bars.