Chicago’s “Tamale Guy” opens restaurant, sells out of food in an hour [Updated]

Illustration for article titled Chicago’s “Tamale Guy” opens restaurant, sells out of food in an hour [Updated]
Photo: Chris Mellor (Getty Images)

Update, August 14, 2020: This has been a tumultuous year for Claudio Velez, aka Chicago’s Tamale Guy. His business of traveling bar to bar to serve late-night crowds dried up in March. Then he started making home deliveries. Then he started fulfilling orders for long lines of customers at parking lot pop-ups. Then he got shut down by the city. Then his legions of fans started a GoFundMe and raised well over $30,000 for Velez’s eventual brick-and-mortar location. This week, Velez opened that brick-and-mortar location, Tamale Guy Chicago, and by noon on its first day of operation, it had sold out of tamales. This city’s love for the Tamale Guy runs deep.

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Ashok Selvam of Eater Chicago writes that by 12:30 p.m. on Thursday, Velez had made approximately 1,000 tamales in his new kitchen while a line of customers stretched down the block throughout business hours. Velez said he expects Friday to be “even busier.” It’s strictly a carry-out business at the moment, and even if tamales are sold out by the time you get there, Eater notes that you can still purchase T-shirts printed with the Tamale Guy’s signature red cooler.

Update, July 24, 2020: After the city shut down his unlicensed business and outraged customers banded together to create a GoFundMe, Chicago’s Tamale Guy, also known as Claudio Velez, will finally be able to fulfill his dream of opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant next month in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood. It’s a happy day for the city’s tamale-lovers—especially since quarantine essentially destroyed the Tamale Guy’s previous business model of dragging his red cooler from bar to bar late at night to provide for hungry, drunk patrons.

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The GoFundMe raised more than $33,000, Block Club Chicago reports, enough for to rent a storefront near the corner of Chicago and Damen Avenues, right in the heart of the Tamale Guy’s late-night territory. Velez has also acquired a business partner, pastry chef Pierre Vega, who has worked in several restaurants in the city and was also a long-time Tamale Guy customer. Vega’s wife, Kristin, will manage the front of the house. The new restaurant will serve the chicken, and pork tamales that made the Tamale Guy so beloved, but Velez is also looking forward to expanding the menu to Oaxacan tamales, made with banana leaves that keep the masa extra-moist, and other non-tamale dishes from his native Acapulco. Vega will also contribute: he’s been experimenting with dessert tamales, including one with strawberries and honey-infused cream.

Velez has yet to choose a name for the restaurant, but Vega says it will probably have some iteration of the name “Tamale Guy.”

“I am very excited, especially with everyone who helped make this dream possible,” Velez told Block Club in Spanish. “This has always been my dream.”

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.

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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.

Aimee Levitt is associate editor of The Takeout.

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DISCUSSION

I only ever got his tamales once but, man, did they hit the spot. We were drowning ourselves at Delilah’s ($4 Maker’s and gingers, whaaaat?!?) and he came through just past midnight. Bought one for each of the four of us. They were like little hugs on the inside. Cheesy, chicken-filled hugs. Bless that man.