Illustration for article titled Chicago’s “Tamale Guy” gets shut down, but neighbors step up to help [Update]
Photo: Chris Mellor (Getty Images)

Update, May 11, 2020: According to various tweets and Facebook posts, Claudio Velez, aka Chicago’s Tamale Guy, has been served a cease and desist letter by the city after someone reported his unlicensed business to the authorities:

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Naturally, Velez’s hordes of devoted fans are outraged that anyone would proactively eliminate an independent vendor’s livelihood at a time when everyone is struggling to stay afloat. But there’s a silver lining here: friends of Velez have set up a GoFundMe so that the Tamale Guy can open the brick-and-mortar restaurant he’s been working toward. It keeps blowing past every fundraising goal it sets, so hopefully Chicago will soon be awash in pork, chicken, and cheese wrapped in masa once more.

Update, April 10, 2020: The Tamale Guy’s new business model is almost too popular. But that’s just what happens when a true artist’s preferred media are meat and masa. Block Club Chicago reports that after last week’s story about how Claudio Velez, Chicago’s beloved Tamale Guy, was pivoting to home delivery after the city’s bars were ordered to shut down, Chicagoan Keith Palmer and a group of his Lakeview-area neighbors organized a big group order of the tamales after getting approval from Velez’s son. The orders reached capacity after just four hours, and the result was that 160 residents, respectfully spaced at least six feet apart, each picked up their tamales from Velez in a commercial parking lot—adding up to more than $1,000 in sales.

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The whole thing worked so well that a group of neighbors in the West Loop neighborhood did the very same thing, fielding tons of orders and picking them up from a community garden. Other neighborhood groups are working with Velez to organize more delivery days in the future. As Palmer told Block Club, “There are plenty of places that you can buy tamales around here, but everyone knows him here and they love his product and we wanted to support him.”

Original post, April 1, 2020: If you don’t live in or around Chicago, perhaps you’ve never heard of the Tamale Guy. And that’s exciting, because it gives us an excuse to tell you all about him. “Tamale Guy” is the nickname for Claudio Velez, who for years has been selling his tamales to bar patrons late at night all across the city’s north side nightlife scene. You never know when or where the Tamale Guy will show up, but everyone in the room will quickly hearken to the cry of “Tamales! Tamales! Tamales!” coming from the doorway. Velez never stays in any one place for long, and you must make a mad dash over to his cooler as he’s making a circuit of the bar if you want to buy a bagful before he waltzes right out the door again—you’ve got a window of about 15-20 seconds. The tamales are delicious, and as anyone who has been drinking for hours can tell you, they hit the spot like nothing else. Chicago salutes its Tamale Guy.

But with all the city’s bars currently closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, where does that leave Tamale Guy and his bar-centric business model? Eater Chicago assures us that Velez hasn’t skipped a beat. He’s now testing a home delivery model, bringing the tamales right to customers’ doors. “Earlier this week, Velez’s alleged phone number began circulating on private social media accounts,” Eater’s Ashok Selvam explains. “It looked like a mirage, a false flag for hope as America dealt with the COVID-19 outbreak.” If this all sounds rather awed and hyperbolic, well, this city really loves these tamales. As it turns out, the rumors were true: you can call the number and Velez asks for your drop-off location. The system works!

However, Velez doesn’t want the phone number published widely, because he prefers to keep his operation small and manageable. So while we can’t all pile on with our orders, it’s reassuring to know that Tamale Guy is still out there, feeding the grateful masses. Selvam’s description of the home-delivered treasure is Chicago summer incarnate: “They brought back memories of cheap beers, pool tables, and waiting for the jukebox to play our favorite songs.” Let’s hope we can make some new memories just like that soon enough.

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Marnie Shure is editor in chief of The Takeout.

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