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Veteran Tamale a Classic Chicago Story: Work on Ground Floor, Live Upstairs

By Casey Cora | August 26, 2014 7:00am | Updated on August 27, 2014 10:59am
 Bob Szczytko and son Mike man the counter at Veteran Tamale Foods, 3133 S. Archer Ave.
Bob Szczytko and son Mike man the counter at Veteran Tamale Foods, 3133 S. Archer Ave.
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DNAinfo/Casey Cora

MCKINLEY PARK — The story of the Veteran Tamale Foods precedes its longtime location at the unassuming corner of Archer and Robinson avenues.

It begins in 1946 inside Edmund Szczytko's butcher shop at 33rd and Morgan streets. There he teamed up with a partner to begin making and selling "corn rolls," which they made with seasoned ground beef rolled up in cornmeal — a recipe that varies from the Mexican tamale, traditionally wrapped in a corn husk.

A year later, Szczytko bought out his partner, then bought a building at 3133 S. Archer Ave., where he cranked out machine-made tamales while his five kids hand-wrapped every last one.

One of Ed's sons, Bob, now 77, currently runs the show. He raised his three kids above the tamale shop and all of them still help out.

"I make them in my sleep," said Mike Szczytko, 49.

Casey Cora says the tamale shop is a family operation:

Today, Veteran Tamale Foods is mostly the same as it was back then, a small counter where patrons can place orders for bulk foods.

But the customers have changed.

Long gone are the Depression-era vendors who'd supply their push-carts with Veteran tamales and steam them alongside hot dogs to peddle throughout the neighborhood, and their modern-day replacements are a dying breed.

"This is when Bridgeport was all about hot dog vendors. A guy would get laid off, get a street cart, get back on his feet and sell [the cart] to someone else," Mike Szczytko said.

Szczytko said today's customers include local restaurants, church groups, schools and backyard chefs looking to feed big crowds. Veteran also sells big packs of steaks, hot dogs, Polish sausage, burgers, Italian beef and condiments in bulk.

But this is a tamale shop after all, and like Tom Tom and SupremeChicago's two other family-owned tamale makers — the Szczytkos have hinged their reputation to their recipe, which has evolved over the years. 

Bob Szczytko said they eliminated meat back in the 1960s after getting "hassled" by inspectors with the United States Department of Agriculture.

They later switched to spiced, textured soy protein cooked in lard, and finally ditched the lard for vegetable oil, which was better for Catholics abstaining from meat during Lent.

"It's vegetarian. A lot of people who come in here are really surprised," Mike Szczytko said.

While the shop sells all manner of food products, from gallons of condiments to reams of napkins, the one thing you can't buy is a hot tamale.

Nothing there is served warm, but if you're lucky enough to arrive on one of the days they're making tamales — some 1,200 at a time, three times a week — they just might peel one off for you to eat it fresh.

It will, however, set you back 54 cents.

Veteran Tamale Foods is open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays and closed on Sundays. Phone: 773-927-1282

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