You can’t throw a rock in Southern California without hitting a taco shop. But with so many authentic Mexican food joints around, just serving great grub isn’t always enough for a small business to make a name for itself. Perhaps no other taco shop in the region has found a more unique niche than Tio’s Tacos in Riverside.
I stop by the family-owned restaurant during a road trip along the California section of Route 66, which runs 10 miles north of downtown Riverside. Tio’s Tacos is well worth the detour, and it’s easy to spot from a distance: A life-sized mannequin is perpetually riding a bicycle off a roof, and two 30-foot-tall palm trees facing the street have been turned into human-like figures. They wear matching red boots and their wire mesh torsos are stuffed with empty aluminum cans and bottles. Surrounding the two figures is a sprawling sculpture park that takes up half a city block and spills out onto the sidewalk.
From trash to treasure
Tio’s Tacos—both the restaurant and the eclectic art—is the life’s work of Martin Sanchez, who came to California from Michoacán, Mexico, in 1984. Five years later he opened the restaurant with his wife Concepcion, and today it’s being run by two of their daughters, Stephanie and Kimberly.
“[My dad] knew there were a lot of restaurants, especially Mexican restaurants, in L.A., but he always dreamed of making something that was different and unique from all the other ones,” says 30-year-old Stephanie Sanchez. “At the time, he didn’t really have a plan or an idea of what he was going to create, but he knew within himself that he wanted to make something different.”
When Martin first arrived in the U.S., he worked as a street vendor selling fruits and snacks. He would often see people throw away furniture and other items that were slightly damaged but still usable. “Coming from a place with a lot of poverty, he wanted to repurpose these things,” Stephanie says. “So he just started taking things in and repairing them and giving them a second chance.”
In the last decade, Martin’s collection of trash-turned-treasure has continued to grow. As I enter the restaurant’s parking lot, I’m immediately surrounded by his recycled art: There’s a cigarette-smoking, guitar-playing, papier-mâché Mariachi man stuffed with empty cans; a tall Christmas tree with skirts made of empty green beer bottles; a 10-foot skeleton riding a bicycle covered in buttons; and more license plates, mannequins, planters, fountains, toys, tools, and instruments than I can count. The art is hung in trees, placed on rooftops, and etched into walkways and lawns. Everywhere I turn, there’s something new to explore.
Mi casa es su casa
Every part of Tio’s Tacos—including the restaurant, patio, and parking lot—is used to display art in various shapes and sizes. The artist’s Mexican heritage is represented throughout, and so is his family. Toys and household items from various stages of the Sanchez family’s recent history have been repurposed and memorialized throughout the property.
“The restaurant is kind of like a timeline of our lives,” Stephanie says. She mentions an installation where three bicycles are partly buried in cement. One of the bikes was used by both Stephanie and her two sisters when they were children. Once they outgrew it, their father cut up the bike and used it for his art. “It’s a nice way to remember our childhood,” says Stephanie.
In what is perhaps Martin’s greatest tribute, a chapel has been constructed almost entirely using empty beer bottles. It features colorful pews and a painted ceiling reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel. “He created the chapel my mom always wanted,” Stephanie says. “At the time, he didn’t have extra money to go and buy basic materials like wood, so he became creative with what he had. He saw that you could use beer bottles as materials, so he just started saving, saving, saving bottles. We’re talking years of saving.”
The bottle mosaic creates a stained glass effect that helps highlight the religious imagery and adornments inside the chapel. While Martin built the chapel for his wife as a private place of worship, several ceremonies—including weddings—have been held in it. “People would ask, ‘Can we get married here?’” Stephanie says. “And my dad was open to it. ‘Mi casa es su casa’ is a phrase he uses often.”
Enchiladas with a twist
During my visit, there’s a line down the street to order food at the front window. No one is allowed inside due to COVID-19 restrictions, but seating in both the front and rear patio is open. And while several people are strolling through the outdoor museum and taking photos around the property, others are here just for the food.
The seafood-heavy menu includes all the usual suspects—tacos, quesadillas, burritos, and enchiladas—some with a Michoacán twist. “Our enchiladas are a little sweet. They’re not like the traditional enchiladas that we’re used to here,” Stephanie says. “[My dad] wanted to bring a little bit of the culture and how he grew up in Michoacán to Riverside.”
One of the most popular items on the menu, she says, is the whole fried tilapia. It’s served with Martin’s signature garlic and lemon sauce, which also tops everything from the shrimp tacos to the steak.
For Tio’s Tacos, adjusting to new pandemic restrictions was easier than for some other restaurants since most of the seating was already located outside. But it still hasn’t been easy. “It was, and it still is, a struggle,” Stephanie says. “We’re just pushing through every day and not giving up and hoping to see a better day tomorrow.” She suggests supporting small businesses in your local community as a way to help out during these times.
Tio’s Tacos is open daily, and it’s an excellent spot to spend a few hours, whether eating or strolling through the outdoor museum. It would take a lifetime to examine and appreciate each detail of the art that is scattered throughout the property—and the collection is always evolving.
“Take a lot of pictures,” Stephanie says. “Because when you come back, it’s not going to look the same.”
If you go
Tio’s Tacos in downtown Riverside is open Sunday through Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Friday through Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.