Little Mexico, big community in Hunts Point

March 24th, 2019  |  Published in Business, Today's Special, Uncategorized

In 2013, Isrrael Veliz sold tamales to friends and neighbors out of his apartment. Now, Veliz serves up a little piece of Mexico and a big sense of community in his Hunts Point restaurant, City Tamale.

City Tamale started in 2016 as a food truck serving festivals and events, as well as the current storefront on Oak Point Avenue. Owned by 29-year-old Veliz, City Tamale is now a Bronx community institution with a warm environment and high-quality food, said Roberto Cabrera, a close friend of Veliz’s who met him as one of his first customers.

“They’re well-connected to the neighborhood,” said Cabrera, a 25-year-old Amazon subcontractor. “You come here in the morning, and you get a friendly vibe.”

City Tamale on Oak Point Avenue in Hunts Point. Photo: Christine Chun.

Born in Houston and raised in Mexico, Veliz moved to Brooklyn by himself at age 15, not speaking English, and his two brothers followed soon after. He worked in restaurants throughout the city as a dishwasher, waiter and bartender before attending business school at Baruch College and starting his business.

Veliz began selling tamales from his apartment and moved on to Sunday soccer games at parks, with just two tables and a 10-by-10 tent. That led to catering, including an anniversary party for his brother’s barbershop. Then he paired what he learned from school with his experience in restaurants and opened City Tamale.

“I saw my dream,” Veliz said. “It’s a big risk, what I did.”

Back then, the Bronx was starting to see an influx of Mexican immigrants, but there weren’t many Mexican restaurants. Veliz needed $250,000 for his business, most of which he obtained from his brother, who already had successful ventures of his own in the beauty industry, and by using his own credit lines.

His mother, who divorced his father and moved to the Bronx from Mexico in 2016, also played a key if unintentional role in helping kick off City Tamale: She taught her son to make tamales, and he still uses her recipe. She’s not involved in the business, but “it definitely helps having the support here,” Veliz said.

Coming from a humble background, Veliz grew up believing in the American dream, and providing for his mother is something he strove to achieve.

“Most immigrants dream to help their parents and give them a better lifestyle,” Veliz said. “Of course it was part of my dream to take care of her.”

Available in five flavors, four savory and one sweet, Veliz’s tamales come in traditional corn husks that encase a cornmeal dough packed with fillings such as roasted pork, jalapeños and cheese. The best-selling one, Veliz said, is the verde, with shredded chicken and tomatillo salsa. For something sweet, there’s the dulce tamale with pineapple and almonds, as well as homemade tamarind drink and horchata.

Verde and rajas tamales. Veliz says the verde is the best-selling item. Photo: Christine Chun.

City Tamale enjoys a large customer base of workers at the massive Hunts Point food distribution hub and nearby markets and factories who visit every weekday, along with the many Hispanic Bronx residents who seek a taste of home. Of the borough’s 1.47 million residents,  56.2 percent identify as Hispanic or Latino and 5.7 percent as Mexican, according to U.S. Census’ 2017 data. In Hunts Point, 64.5 percent are Hispanic.

Even though Veliz now has only the 11-seat restaurant – he sold the food truck to focus on the store, citing high maintenance costs – business is booming, with City Tamale producing 3,000 tamales weekly. The industrial setting was part of Veliz’s reason for setting up shop in Hunts Point.

“It’s the perfect community for my product because tamales are mostly eaten by working-class people in Mexico,” Veliz said.

Easy access to fresh ingredients from places like Hunts Point Produce Market was another lure, and these ingredients elevate the tamales’ quality and taste, Veliz said. Jennifer Santana, a 27-year-old Bronx native and nonprofit employee, said that to her, City Tamale’s tamales taste more authentic and fresher than others she’s tried. While some tamales tend to be dry, “these were jam-packed, moist, not dry at all,” she said.

Santana, a Puerto Rican who “loves trying tamales everywhere,” appreciates that City Tamale is “bringing tamales to the forefront” in her borough, which is exactly what Veliz wants to do.

“Tamales are out there but are not mainstream yet,” Veliz said. “I’m trying to create a better product, do it well and do it in a way that is very friendly for everybody.”

Customers line up at 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday. Photo: Christine Chun.

Michael Galindo, Veliz’s “right-hand man,” started working six years ago as a 19-year-old City College student. Veliz wants to expand the business and someday share his profits with Galindo, who has been with City Tamale from the start. 

“I had hope and faith that we can do this,” Galindo, now 25, said. “His passion, his confidence — that also transferred into me.”

Like Galindo, Veliz’s friend Cabrera witnessed City Tamale grow. Cabrera comes every two weeks from Long Island for his favorite chorizo-and-egg torta and sometimes helps with the business’s operations, pitching in purely out of support for his friends. It’s not about the money – he just believes in Veliz’s mission.

“You do things for your friends and people with dreams you believe in,” Cabrera said as he restocked beverages. “I believe this guy is going to reach far,” he added, referring to Veliz.

“There’s a lot of ideas that could go a lot of ways — it could be more food trucks, other locations,” Galindo said. “That’s what’s good about it; it’s very exciting.”

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