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Chicago’s legendary tamale guy visits 20 bars and makes 1,500 tamales on the first day after being hospitalized for COVID

Thursday was a night for Claudio Velez that resulted in five hours of sleep after hitting 20 bars while making the tamale drops that have made him popular with Chicagoans for more than 20 years. Velez started his working day in the morning with loud plause of customers sitting on Lone Wolf’s 23-table patio on the sidewalk along Randolph Street. Velez and his family started their new business, Authentic Tamale Guy, from the West Loop Bar and later that night he stopped at bars like the Rainbo Club, Hideout Inn and Bucktown Pub.

The new agreement with Lone Wolf gives Velez a base of operations in which he can serve his customers his classic tamales with corn husks and green salsa in his house tavern, while he has the option of doing bar hops afterwards. The first customer at Lone Wolf was on Thursday around 10:30 am and Velez says he and his family made 1,500 tamales before they sold out.

For him, as a Chicago nightlife legend who fed hungry bar customers in no-meal tavernas, Thursday felt like the old days. On the opening night, he mingled with customers, taking selfies and smiling with bartenders who hadn’t seen him since the pandemic. Velez hopes this new partnership with Lone Wolf works better for him compared to his restaurant in the Ukrainian Village. A dispute with these partners has led to pending legal proceedings. Since one of these partners, Kristin Vega, has been with Easy Bar for many years, he stays away from this Wicker Park spot: “I don’t want to cause any trouble,” says Velez while his son Osmar Abad Cruz is translating.

Claudio Velez is on Randolph Street.

A plate of tamales in corn husks.

Despite the move to Randolph Street, the zippered plastic bags and the red cool boxes are still there.

Velez’s history is well documented, from his rock star status, trouble with the city over West Loop complaints, and the opening of his first restaurant. He got used to the attention and the plausibility. He even received another applause in September when he was discharged from Rush University Medical Center after spending 35 days on treatment for COVID-19. Abad Cruz reflected on how far his father had come and remembered seeing his father in the hospital staring blankly as the illness affected his breathing and senses.

„I just want him to be fine,” says Abad Cruz. „He deserves that.”

The Tamale Guy tested home delivery last year after COVID-19 closed bars and cut him off from his customer base. While Velez says his dream is to open another restaurant at some point, he visits Chicago’s bars. Over the years, part of the fun has been lucky enough to run into Velez at a bar. The Tamale Guy’s tendencies and routes were unknown. Velez still won’t publish its routes and that keeps some of the excitement for old-school fans. Delivery will eventually be available in a week or two so people can plan their night around tamales.

A group of people sitting at the picnic bench at night.

Tamale Guy is all about the fans.

More fans and more photos.

Barry Crowbar / Eater Chicago

Velez says he plans to check out 20 more bars on Friday night. He quit drinking for a while and agrees to resume his son’s birthday in late August: „There are too many problems with alcohol,” he says.

Still, interacting with fans remains his favorite pastime. Velez has been delivering tamales across Chicago for more than 20 years after immigrating from Mexico. With the help of his son, they have been looking for a licensed kitchen space to make tamales since last year. You have connected to a Facebook group Real west loopwho introduced her to the owners of Lone Wolf at Heisler Hospitality (Estereo, Queen Mary). While delivering tamales to bars, Velez and his family were making food from their homes. Chicago’s Laws for Cottage Groceries are restrictive, so very little food can be prepared at home. Items such as jams and baked goods can only be sold in farmers’ markets. In other parts of the country, including the LA areaThe smelting business flourished during the pandemic. Although all the recipes have stayed the same, “it’s completely different” with Lone Wolf. There is less concern about city fines that officials threatened last year in cease and desist letters following complaints after Velez sold tamales in a West Loop park: “We feel safer and more peaceful because it’s a license for cooking ”, says Velez.

A masked man standing next to a tray of tamales.

Claudio Velez in his new kitchen.

On Thursday night, a customer tip Velez $ 100 and he said he could feel his fans’ love all night. The 56-year-old says he’s determined to keep up the pace: „When I have the strength, I’ll go ahead and make it work,” he says.

On Saturday evening, a video crew from Vice Media will accompany him on his tamale run. He is popular with the media with TV and print interviews. Velez also says he plans to ditch leftover food at the end of the night and feed those without a home who live under Chicago’s bridges. He says he has to give something back to the community that supports him.

“People are important to them,” says Velez.

The authentic tamale type, at Lone Wolf, 806 W. Randolph Street, open noon through midnight, Wednesday through Monday.