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The Tamale Guy Is Opening A Ukrainian Village Restaurant

For almost two decades, Claudio Velez sold tamales out of a trademark red cooler outside bars. Now he's opening his first brick-and-mortar restaurant.

Claudio Velez sold tamales out of a trademark red cooler outside bars for decades. Now he's opening his first brick-and-mortar restaurant.
Hannah Alani/Block Club Chicago
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UKRAINIAN VILLAGE — Claudio Velez, Chicago’s beloved “Tamale Guy,” is opening his first brick-and-mortar restaurant — and it’s in Ukrainian Village.

The restaurant at 2018 W. Chicago Ave. could open in August, said Pierre Vega, Velez’s business partner.

A longtime customer of Velez’s, Vega said he went into business with Velez to help him realize his lifelong dream of owning his own restaurant. The duo leased the storefront near the corner of Damen and Chicago avenues in July.

“He’s been super, super excited … . He’s just ready to get back to work, to start making tamales again,” Vega said. “We’ll be able to feed all the hungry, hungry people some tamales.”

Credit: Hannah Alani / Block Club Chicago

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

The restaurant name isn’t set in stone, but it will likely have some iteration of “The Tamale Guy,” Vega said.

Velez, 55, got into the tamale business after moving to Chicago at the age of 28. He is originally from the Acapulco region of Mexico. 

He first worked as a salesman for an older tamale maker. Velez quickly became the man’s best salesperson; in the time it took other sellers to sell a couple dozen tamales, Velez could sell a hundred-dozen.  

Eventually the older man taught Velez his tamale recipe. After three years, he allowed Velez to take over the business. 

For almost two decades, Velez has walked the streets and sold tamales out of his trademark red cooler, often selling to hungry bar patrons on the North Side. When bars shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, Velez lost his income.

Velez tried switching his business model to home delivery, but city officials slapped him with a cease-and-desist letter in May, the Tribune reported. Chicagoans rallied to support Velez, raising more than $33,000 in a GoFundMe fundraiser.

Credit: Keith Palmer
Neighbors pick up tamales from Claudio Velez in Lakeview earlier this month.

Velez was able to use the money toward creating his first brick and mortar business. The business will replace Whisk, a brunch spot that closed this year.

“Thank you people who started the GoFundMe,” Velez said in Spanish. “Thank you everybody from different neighborhoods who helped me achieve my dream.” 

Vega’s wife, Kristin Vega, will manage front of house operations at the new restaurant. The couple both have experience in Chicago’s food and beverage industry. 

The partners toured several spots across Chicago, but this location resonated with them the most, Vega said.

“We were dead set on it,” he said. “It’s Claudio’s demographic, right in the heart of where he served his customers, the random patrons, the numerous bars where he sold tamales. It just made perfect sense when we saw the place.”  

The restaurant has indoor seating, but in an effort to limit customers’ exposure to COVID-19, the tamale shop will initially only allow seating in the back patio, Kristin Vega said. 

She expects a rush of orders upon opening and hopes customers will be understanding as the small team begins cooking. Ordering ahead, either by phone or online, will be helpful. 

“Patience is key,” she said. 

In addition to traditional tamale fillings like chicken and pork, Velez is going to experiment with new flavors. 

For example, Pierre Vega, a pastry chef by trade, is working on a sweet tamale using strawberries and honey-infused cream. 

Velez is also importing banana leaves from Costa Rica to create Oaxacan style tamales, which are different from regular tamales in that they are wrapped in banana leaves during cooking. 

The banana leaves lock in the moisture of the masa exterior, giving the corn shell a bit of a custard flavor, Vega said. 

“There’s nothing like it in Chicago,” Velez said.

In addition to tamales Velez looks forward to expanding the menu to include traditional Acapulco dishes, such as his mother’s braised beef taco recipe. 

The brick-and-mortar restaurant will allow Velez to offer catering for large parties, including weddings and quinceaneras.  

Rumors of Velez’s move to the West Town area have been spreading in neighborhood Facebook groups; however, neighbors were unable to confirm a specific location or opening date.

Neighbors received a big clue last week when red coolers and a sign reading, “You want tamales? See you soon,” were placed in the former Whisk window.

“It’s very exciting to be opening up a restaurant. … You definitely don’t read about too many restaurants opening up right now,” Vega said. “I really wish as many businesses were able to stay open right now.”

Velez agreed. 

“Overall, I’m just excited and can’t wait to see those same faces,” he said.

A website and social media accounts for the business are coming soon. In the meantime, customers can reach the business by calling 773-697-3661.

Credit: Hannah Alani / Block Club Chicago

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