Tamale turf wars
But things aren’t always so friendly in Tamale Land. For one, the city isn’t always so hot on the whole idea. Boban explains that once or twice the news has done a story because “people who are walking around like that, they are not paying taxes for what they’re selling. There’s no regulation for their food.” A little friction, sure. But that hasn’t stopped the tamale men from doing their thing.
In fact, it’s not just tamale men who sell bar to bar. Sean reports having a torta man coming by in the past, selling his Mexican sandwiches around last call. And Ted Gerstle, a Bucktown resident, recalls a pizza guy who would come to bars and ask, “Who ordered the pizza?" "No one would pick it up, and he’d say, 'Well, I have this pizza here if anyone wants it... I guess I’ll sell it.’” Sure enough, people would buy. Sean nods. He knows him. “The guy works at Papa Romeo’s.”
According to Boban, although uncommon, turf wars are also real for the tamale men. “[A] door guy that I was talking to said that Claudio and another [tamale man] ran into each other at the same spot,” he recalls. “I don’t know if it was something to do with the tamales or something else, but apparently they got into a fight. Like a fistfight.” They both still come through the Green Eye. Luckily though, they rarely, if ever, overlap.
Far more common than these tales of territorial scrums are stories of Claudio saving the day. The story goes that one night a couple years back, Turbo was working at Lemmings Bar on a Friday night. His friend (the groom) and his groomsmen had stopped by to get a drink before heading to the ceremony. “Everyone came in to meet in a central location and were gonna catch a cab there, it’s five minutes away,” says Turbo. But to their alarm “cabs were an hour and a half wait. Then, Claudio shows up… he’s like ‘Yeah yeah! I’ll take them.’ So he took [them] to the historical society for the wedding. He’s like, ‘No problem!’” Turbo chuckles. “He’s a solid dude.”
So if Claudio’s THE Tamale Man, who are the other tamale men? Boban lays it out for me: “There’s five now. Claudio comes by once. Two come by at least two or three times a night if it’s slow. Another guy, I only see him on rare occasions. He’s a bigger guy… then there’s this guy,” he says, referring to the cold bag of tamales sitting on the bar from earlier in the night. “He’s the new guy.”
The men have different styles of appealing to customers. While Claudio’s approach is personal, calling “Tamales!” as he strides table to table, other vendors are more aggressive. The aforementioned rare-occasions guy, according to Boban, “kinda forces himself upon people, like ‘Come on! You know you want some tamales.’” Others are more aloof, yelling “tamales, tamales” just above the din of the crowd to no one in particular.
Their styles of tamale making are also different, especially the new guy’s. Boban explains the difference saying, “Those one’s aren’t really greasy at all. The cornmeal is a different texture. And then his too, he sells three or four of them, but they’re like this big.” He connects his index fingers and thumbs to form a rectangle. “Those are the only ones around here that are really big.”
All of the tamales, from what I can glean, are made the traditional Mexican way: Mix the masa, make the filling, steam the cornhusks. Then spread the masa, fill, fold, and steam for an hour-ish. The texture depends on how much lard is in the dough, grease level on the filling, and size on your discretion. In Mexico, tamales can be eaten for breakfast or dinner, sold on the street or in a restaurant. They can also be savory or sweet.
I haven’t encountered the sweet ones, but our Bucktown guy Ted has. “One time outside of the grocery in Logan Square I bought an entire [car] trunk of tamales,” he says. “A lot of them were strawberry tamales and let me tell you those were delicious.” Through more sleuthing I’ve determined that these tamales came from Alberto, who I met on the long road to Claudio, and who comes by the Green Eye a couple times a night.
Like Claudio’s, Alberto’s business is a family affair. It all starts in the kitchen with his mother, whose pork tamales are no joke. They are bring-your-Tums spicy and that’s without the salsa. The masa is a little drier than some (less lard, probably) and is folded to form a cigar-sized cylindrical tamale.
Alberto loves passing on praise to his mother and endearingly says that his favorite thing about selling tamales is introducing the public to his mom’s cooking. Although I would have put money on his least-favorite part being the drinkers that must accost him nightly, he says the low point of the job is simple: when he doesn’t sell as many tamales as he wants. Variability is part of the gig; on some nights he’ll do several circuits and still come home with a full cooler. On others, he can sell an entire trunkful.