Monday, February 24, 2014

Chow Time: Tio's Tacos

I used to laugh derisively at self-righteous celebrities who would tout themselves as "spiritual" rather than religious.  The subtext always read that, in their enlightened transcendence, we plebeians had been left behind in a fetid miasma of simple faith.  As I mature (at a pace slower than any approved by modern developmental guidelines), I find in myself the ability to experience the spiritual, outside the confines of religion.  In situations quite devoid of church-sanctioned sanctity, I feel a genuine sense of peace.  In places quite unexpected, I feel a connection to the Divine.  I mean, imagine having a spiritual experience at a taco shop!!!

"Bienvenidos A Su Casa."
Tio's Tacos #1 Mariscos y Centro de Frutas Naturales (est. 1990) - Riverside, CA

Like a modern master filled with the spirit of Grandma Prisbey, Sam Rodia, and Art "Der Tinkerpaw" Beal, Martin Sanchez began Tio's Tacos as an expression of his culture, his history, and his faith.  Proving that wacky tacky isn't relegated to history or high finance, Sanchez weathered an unsteady economy and the uncertainty of the food-service industry to build this mecca of wacky tacky, turning a sidewalk vendor's cart into a chockablock city block in less than twenty-five years.  Seemingly founded on the principles of family, food, and thrift, this Mexican-restaurant-cum-folk-art-installation transforms what most would describe as garbage (think tin cans, broken bicycles, car parts, empty bottles, used toys) into a fantasy land of mermaids, myth, and pop culture.  Here, enveloped by the embrace of highly-personal artistic expression, Mr. Tiny was feeling downright holy! 

The ever-evolving landscape of meandering gardens, oyster-shell footpaths, mosaics, and
statuary are highlighted by grand-scale figures - mermaids, acrobats, spacemen, and more.
We're guessing that Popeye's tin-can-lid bell-bottoms all came from canned spinach - recycling at its best! 

Many of the giant figures are cleverly built around the trunks of the property's many towering palm trees.

Lest you think that we are overstating the grandeur of Sanchez' work,
I've included Mary, who stands at six-feet tall, for scale.

The technique of binding castoffs with chicken wire
is as surprisingly-genius to me as it is to Betty Boop!

If there is one thing I appreciate far less than a spiritually-superior celebrity, it is a movie quoter.  Why did it take so long for Austin Powers' "Yeah, baby!!!" to go away?  Well, in a further admission of my own reluctant maturity, I have come to realize that this prejudice is an example of me disliking a quality in others that I exhibit all too often.  I frequently quote movies; it's just that the movies I tend to reference are generally greater than fifty years old (or at least movies set in a bygone era).  When walking the grounds of Tio's Tacos, only one thought came to mind, a quotation from A Christmas Story.  Like Mr. Parker faced with the major award of that infamous leg lamp, the only words I could utter when faced with the awe-inspiring wonder of this taqueria were, "It's, it's, it''s indescribably beautiful!"

But I guess my sense of spirituality wasn't too misplaced; Tio's sprawling grounds also include a chapel built of
bottles, mirrors, statuary, and assorted recycled material.  We were particularly fond of the picture mosaic dome.

Out of everything, my real obsessions were the bottle-glass walls that caught the light beautifully
both inside and out.  I really fell in love with these walls - call it a harlequin romance!!

Reminders of Sanchez' faith and his native state of Michoacan abounded.
I felt like heavenly signs were everywhere.

I guess it is at this point where I should say that there are also plenty of signs at Tio's Tacos of a far more secular nature - "Cuidado: Suelo Mojado," "Do not leave children unattended," "We will not be responsible for any damages or accidents that occur," "Photographs taken for commercial purposes are prohibited."  Just so readers and Tio's management are aware, as of publication of this post, wacky tacky and Mr. Tiny remain entirely unremunerated for any of our activities and adventures (although we wouldn't necessarily turn our noses up at an offer....).

We're just here for FUN!!!

And real fun can be found in some of Tio's more sophisticated offerings.

We spent so much time wheeling around the grounds on our pint-sized trikes that we almost - almost -  forgot to eat.  We made our way into the actual restaurant, past a three-dimensional, marine-life diorama and the jewel box of mouth-watering aguas frescas.

We left so little time to eat that we both ignored the house recommendations and just panic-ordered the taco salad at the counter.  We were given the obligatory chips and salsa, which incidentally is the best part of any Mexican restaurant meal, and were sent to get our aguas frecas.  I opted for guayaba (my favorite) and Mary spent an inordinate amount of time sampling juices and having a custom-blend concocted that included chia seeds (I warned her that the side effects of ingesting chia seeds include an unexpected green mohawk sprouting up at inopportune moments).

There are many dining areas from which to choose;
we chose to eat near the chapel.  A fiddle player
followed us to add a little musical accompaniment to
our lunch.  He and Mary make a handsome couple, no?

There is definitely nourishment for the body and soul at Tio's Tacos #1 Mariscos y Centro de Frutas Naturales.  It may seem a hackneyed phrase but one man's trash is certainly another man's, namely Martin Sanchez' treasure.  Tio's Tacos is his gift to the City of Riverside and to this wide world of wacky tacky lovers!

Tio's Tacos #1 Mariscos y Centro de Frutas Naturales
3948 Mission Ave
Riverside, CA


Mr. Tiny


  1. My husband and I were at the riverside inn with our five kids and decided to take a walk around the neighborhood when we came upon Tio's Tacos. If course we spent about an hour and a half there looking around and taking pictures. My kids were in awe, posing with mariachi band, the bikers, and the house of dolls. We ended its visit with a family photo in the gigantic chair. Love that place!!

    1. Downtown Riverside is full of wonders. For some reason, we always made it to the mission inn and antique stores and then stopped! One more block and we would have been at Tio's - it was love at first sight!

  2. WOW! i'm so mad I didn't make it there when we were out west! its so beautiful! i LOOOOOVE that photo (with mary for scale).

    1. Rae! We should have taken you! It's like 20 minutes from our place! I'm actually second shooting a wedding there this summer!

    2. Isn't it incredible?!! We will add it to the itinerary for your next trip out here!