After months of uncertainty, Claudio Velez — Chicago’s roving vendor known to many simply as “the Tamale Guy” — has found a new home. Velez, who bounced around from bar to bar selling tamales prepared by his sisters in his home kitchen, now has a properly licensed facility where he can cook without the fear of fines from the city. He’s taking over the kitchen at Lone Wolf, a West Loop bar along Randolph’s restaurant row.
It’s a six-month agreement with Velez projected to start on Friday, July 16. His son, Osmar Abad Cruz, says his father hopes for success and to find a permanent home with Lone Wolf, selling tamales to bar customers and making his legendary runs to bars in Wicker Park and Ukrainian Village. They’ll also offer delivery and online ordering. The agreement with Lone Wolf doesn’t mean Velez is giving up on his dream of opening his own restaurant, says his son: “He’s so excited, so happy,” says Abad Cruz, adding there will be new items beyond the classic tamales and salsa verde. Think banana leaf-wrapped tamales and a variety of new salsas.
Velez and Abad Cruz also established a new LLC, The Authentic Tamale Guy, which will also be the name of the new business. Abad Cruz says they’ve filed to trademark his father’s likeness and the name “Tamale Guy Chicago.” This will be a tight operation with Velez’s sister, brother, and son onboard.
Lone Wolf’s owners, Heisler Hospitality — a company the includes bars like Sportsman’s Club, Pub Royale, and Queen Mary Tavern — gained the trust of Velez. Jeff Donahue, Heisler’s director of operations, says Velez saw many familiar faces in May when he toured the space; many of Lone Wolf’s staff have worked at the bars Velez frequented. Lone Wolf hasn’t fully fired up its kitchen since the pandemic, which makes it easy to allow Velez to take over the space.
The gears began churning in May when Velez sent out feelers that he was looking for kitchen space. Moshe Tamssot has been in contact with Velez and his family in Chicago since 2020. Tamssot, the coordinator of the True West Loop neighborhood Facebook page, made a post looking to connect Velez with interested restaurant owners with space to spare. Heisler spokesperson Hannah Turnbaugh Compton reached out to Tamssot who ended up serving as the bridge connecting Velez to Lone Wolf management.
Abad Cruz says he was impressed by Heisler’s experience and how supportive they were. They’ve offered his father full autonomy, and Velez will be operating totally separately from Lone Wolf. The agreement is comparable to a rental: “We wanted to keep this easy to make everyone feel secure,” Donahue says, noting Velez’s challenges with his past partnership.
Randolph Street — home to McDonald’s corporate headquarters, celeb chef Stephanie Izard’s Girl & the Goat, and Au Cheval — is a far cry from the Wicker Park dive bars that Velez sold his tamales at, taverns like Gold Star Bar, Happy Village, and Club Foot. But this match is all about trust, according to Abad Cruz. Their worry about partners taking advantage has built up through the years. In an August 2020 interview, Velez mentioned sending money to Mexico so his family could build a home that was ultimately never constructed.
While Velez has family in Chicago, Abad Cruz moved from San Diego to help his father set up a website and provide support. Velez’s often turned to friends for help reading contracts due to a language barrier. He can now depend on his son.
“Obviously my dad, he doesn’t know a lot of English,” he says. “But it’s hard, even for someone who can speak the language ... it was extremely important to find a trusted partner.”
Velez, a native of Acapulco, Mexico, had a lifelong dream of opening his own restaurant, but enjoyed success for only a few weeks after the August 2020 opening of Tamale Guy Chicago in Ukrainian Village. Five months after doctors released him from the hospital where he’d spent a month being treated for COVID-19, he filed a lawsuit against his partners at Tamale Guy Chicago. In that March filing, he accused Pierre and Kristin Vega of denying him access to financial records, which effectively barred him from the business. Velez alleged his partners cashed in on his reputation and froze him out of the business. Fans rallied to his aid and donated $90,000 to two GoFundMe campaigns to provide him seed money for the restaurant and to help with his medical bills. Kristin Vega is listed as the organizer of the campaign that raised $56,000 for those bills. It’s unclear how much of that money Velez saw. Abad Cruz says they were close to running out of money in May before they met with Heisler.
It’s challenging for a restaurant to turn a profit right after opening, especially during a pandemic. Even with those factors, Velez expected to see a profit and seeks damages of more than $100,000. The lawsuit also accuses the Vegas of stealing Velez’s tamale recipes and that their conduct “improperly appropriated Plaintiff’s name, likeness, and intellectual property.” The Vegas had brokered a deal with a local graphic designer to create a logo featuring Velez’s likeness, and they worked on a collaboration beer called “Tamale Guy” with Solemn Oath Brewery.
The Vegas’ attorney, Brian Konkel, sent Eater a statement on Thursday morning: “The Vegas deny all of the allegations asserted by Mr. Velez-Gonzalez, and are confident the facts will bear out in their favor. They look forward to resolving this matter soon.”
A trip to a Chicago dive bar wouldn’t be complete without hearing Velez yell “tamales!” while holding his signature red plastic cooler. Donahue says tourists who don’t have time to venture to other parts of the city will now have the opportunity to experience Velez’s tamales close to downtown.
During the pandemic, unable to sell at bars, Velez found success with home delivery. Operations were going smoothly until complaints by anonymous West Loop residents spurred the city into sending cease-and-desist letters ordering Velez to stop making his tamales from his unlicensed kitchen or face up to $1,000 in fines, which he couldn’t afford. There was another xenophobic layer as Velez and his family worried that Velez’s status as an unauthorized immigrant left him particularly vulnerable.
“The entire family feels so much better now that they’re able to operate legally with the protections,” Abad Cruz says.
Donahue adds: “They’re a legitimate business, they deserve to be anywhere in the city. If they want to be in the West Loop, we’re happy to have them.”
Velez’s fans took a hard line against the Vegas. Though they didn’t make a formal announcement, the Vegas closed the restaurant shortly after the lawsuit was filed. Sales dropped after news of the lawsuit. One of the gripes in the lawsuit surrounded Velez’s nickname. Last month, the Vegas relinquished control of the restaurant’s Instagram account, @TamaleGuyChicago. When Velez’s son, Abad Cruz, took over — after a legal battle — fans weren’t sure if their Tamale Guy was behind the posts. That prompted Abad Cruz to post a story reassuring customers that this was “Claudio, the authentic Tamale Guy.” Before that post, the most recent Instagram activity came on March 17, two days after Velez’s attorney filed the lawsuit.
The parties have been meeting in court since March. In recent months, Velez and Cruz have told Eater Chicago that they had doubts about the Vegas even before the restaurant opened. Cook County records show their next court date is scheduled for July 29.
Velez is happier than he has been in months, his son says, but it appears COVID-19 has had lingering effects. Abad Cruz says his father’s voice is softer, and he’s unable to yell as loudly as he once did. Still, he’s in a better place.
“His attitude is completely different now,” Abad Cruz says. “You can tell he’s more energized — he’s very, very excited to get out there.”
Check social media and the upcoming website — tamaleguy.com should be live later this week — for updates.
The Authentic Tamale Guy, inside Lone Wolf, 806 W. Randolph Street, planned for a July 16 opening.