R.I.P. Virginia Ramos, The Tamale Lady

'I don't know you, but I love you,' was the mantra of a beloved San Francisco institution.

A true San Francisco institution has passed. SF Examiner’s Laura Waxmann confirms that Virginia Ramos — better known to anyone who ever set foot in Lucky 13, Zeitgeist (for a while), Toronado, Noc Noc, Molotov’s, or The Eagle as The Tamale Lady — has died. She hadn’t been around much the last several years, but as of January, she was set to open her own brick-and-mortar at 2943 16th St. In the works since at least 2013 and initially scheduled to open in April, it was still in a preparatory phase at the time of Ramos’ passing at age 65. How beloved was she? Cecil Lossy, drummer of The Bar Feeders, once made a 20-minute documentary about her, with dozens of musical tributes.

I’m sure everyone remembers the first time they unwrapped a $5 homemade tamale from the cooler she towed around town, adroitly taking payments from intoxicated people, parting the corn-husk wrapper, squirting it with hot sauce, sticking a fork in, and passing it over with a paper napkin. She either saved you from a hangover, kept you going, or both.

Years after my first tamale, I went to her 60th birthday party at the Eagle, which was a time. There was a big banner on one wall that read, “I don’t know you, but I love you. So don’t do the chemicals, honey.” We took a picture together.

Ramos was a staple around town, but a complicated figure within the Mission. As Mission Local reported in 2014, she was a landlady who rented apartments in a four-unit building on 24th Street at below market rate, but struggled with maintenance. The Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA) believed her to be a “victim of predatory lending” and her finances likely held up the long-delayed opening of her restaurant, which was to be 100-percent funded by the Mission Housing Development Corporation.

After Zeitgeist banned her from selling homemade food on-site in 2013 — which made national news — then-Sup. David Campos stepped in to assist. But a crowdfunding campaign raised only a fraction of the hoped-for $150,000. Doubtless the entire city was excited for such a hardworking woman to achieve a stable form of success with a full-time eatery. R.I.P., Tamale Lady. We will miss you.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Tamale Lady documentary was made by KQED.

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