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Chicago Portrait: Tamale Guy

Chicago Portrait: Tamale Guy

This summer, Claudio Velez was thrilled to open his restaurant Tamale Guy Chicago.

The business is the culmination of decades of hard work from Velez, the longtime food vendor affectionately known as the “Tamale Guy.”

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But just weeks after opening, Velez contracted COVID-19 and was hospitalized for 35 days before returning home earlier this month.

Tamale Guy Chicago co-owner Kristin Vega sent this update to WTTW News on Friday:

“The restaurant has been open since September 9th with takeout only. No one else has contracted COVID that works at the restaurant. Claudio is at home recovering and will be for some time. 

“We are all in good spirts and are just eager to continue to provide everyone with tamales and other specials.”

We visited Velez during his restaurant’s opening day on Aug. 13 as part of the WTTW “Chicago Portrait” series.

Here is our original report, published Aug. 18:

“Yesterday, we were here until 7 in the morning until 8 at night, just making tamales,” restaurant co-owner Pierre Vega said on opening day of the restaurant Tamale Guy Chicago. “And we had about 3,000 tamales on hand and we pretty much sold out of those within the first hour.”

Claudio Velez — aka the “Tamale Guy” — expressed gratitude and pride on the day his restaurant opened.

“I feel very excited, and I thank God and all of the people that helped me make the American dream possible,” he said.

Velez was born in Acapulco, Mexico. The 55-year-old came to the United States 28 years ago and, after briefly living in San Diego, moved to Chicago, where a friend named Fernando taught him how to make tamales and earn a living selling them bar to bar.

“Every bar, only 3 to 4 minutes at a bar and then let’s go,” Velez said. “One hundred bars every night.”

Eventually Fernando moved back to Mexico, but Velez continued working long hours to sell his tamales and provide for his family.

He built a sizable following throughout Chicago’s bar and nightlife scene – a Tamale Tracker Twitter account with more than 7,700 followers announced his location at any given time.

When COVID-19 shut down Chicago’s restaurant and bars in March, Velez had to adapt — so he started making home deliveries.

Velez said business was good until someone complained he was operating without a food license, prompting the city to write a cease-and-desist letter.

“I felt very sad when they told me I had to stop selling, because someone had sent them like 10 letters saying that I didn’t have a license,” Velez said. “And that someone complained to them about me.”

GoFundMe campaign organized in May to help Velez in the wake of his diminished livelihood garnered about $35,000 and was used, along with personal savings from Velez and the Vegas, to open Tamale Guy Chicago.

“It is better for me because now – I am at ease,” Velez said. “I am working with all of the city’s permits, so no one is going to bother me, and, we’re good.”

About this series

Chicago Portrait is a WTTW News documentary-style series focusing on the stories of everyday Chicagoans who reflect the city’s 77 diverse community areas.

Follow Evan Garcia on Twitter: @EvanRGarcia

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