Hot Tamales

Chris Wolfe enjoys a tamale at The Long Room. Photo by Sarah Arkin

It's Thursday night at a noisy bar on Irving Park Road and  the after-work crowd is getting hungry.

There's a $5 vodka special on the menu, but aside from the option of stumbling out to a pizza stand across the street, there's nothing much to eat.

But thanks to two cooler-toting Mexican entrepreneurs, these Chicago drinkers need not leave their barstools for a tasty, home-cooked snack.

By day Julio Aguilar, 33, and Claudio Gonzales, 38, are both factory workers. By night, they are simply known as "the tamale guys."

Aguilar moved to Chicago from Acapulco 12 years ago. He, his wife, and three sons live on the Northwest side. While Aguilar works at a chocolate factory on Touhy Avenue, his wife cooks tamales all day at their home in Jefferson Park, he said.

Originally from Guerrero, Mexico, Gonzales has lived in Chicago for 14 years. He has been selling tamales that his sister makes for the past year and a half. He says he sleeps about four or five hours a night.

Between the two, they cover bars as far north as Uptown and down to Division Street. They don't compete, but they're not quite a team either. "Claudio taught me taught me everything I know," said Aguilar.

Tamales are a traditional Latin American dish possibly dating back 500 years. Recipes vary between countries and even within towns. Like many South American specialties, all tamales start with cornmeal. The meal is boiled and mixed with lard to make a paste which is spread onto banana leaves or corn husks. After the tamales have been filled and wrapped, they are either boiled or roasted. Filling can be anything from fish to pumpkins to chocolate.

Aguilar and Gonzales both offer three choices: cheese, chicken and pork. All come with spicy chilies and a complimentary sauce. Six tamales cost $5 dollars, making them cheap and filling. 

Tamales at El Cid, a Mexican restaurant in Logan Square, are $2 each.

Aguilar said business varies from night to night, but that it's usually better in the winter. Gonzales says it's really not a very lucrative business, but that he enjoys getting out and meeting people.

"Everybody loves them," says John Hokala, a bartender at The Long Room on Irving Park Road. "Especially drunk people. They want food."

Aguilar usually comes in about 9 p.m. and Gonzales shows up around 11 p.m., he said. Hokala also said patrons specifically ask for them.

"The roasted poblano [pepper] on the seam is amazing," said Clark Fowler, one of the owners of The Long Room.

Jake Trigo, wearing a Cubs jersey but originally from South Texas, is a testament to the diversity of tamale styles.

"We don't have cheese tamales where I come from," he said. "That's absurd. But they do have a good shuckability." Only someone who's ever eaten a tamale would understand what that means, he said, but how the husk comes off is an important factor in judging tamales.

Tamale enthusiasts can be found all over the city.

Mike Callahan, 24, says he comes to The Long Room three times a week specifically for the tamales.

Lee Vida, 30, a frequent patron of Hideout on West Wabansia Avenue, actually had Gonzales cater her wedding reception there in April.

"He and a friend walked right in with two coolers on each shoulder," she said while munching on one of Aguilar's tamales. "It was great."

Their fans can't agree whose tamales are better, but, as Callahan points out, the tamales vary every night. In general, everyone agrees they are delicious.

"Oh my God," said Randy Vonfeldt, 28, after biting into his first taste of one of Aguilar's tamales. "That's fantastic."