Sam McManis

Discoveries: Folk art adorns Tio’s Tacos in Riverside

Martin Sanchez’s family lives in this house next to Tio’s Tacos in Riverside. One of his daughters’ old bikes is part of the fun.
Martin Sanchez’s family lives in this house next to Tio’s Tacos in Riverside. One of his daughters’ old bikes is part of the fun.

If you’re anywhere near our state’s vast Inland Empire, I’m going to have to insist you dine at Tio’s Tacos. This is mandatory, people. Go for the pollo en mole alone. The sauce is sublime, spreading out over your plate like an oil slick, thick but not too thick, the ratio of sweetness-to-chili pepper kick well balanced. At $9.99, it’s pricey by Tio’s standards, but still pretty darn affordable.

Really, what’s not to like?

Now that I’ve engaged your stomach with a gushing Yelpian plug for this family-owned restaurant in Riverside’s not-as-bleak-as-you-might-think downtown, I’m ready to tell you the real reason to exit that exhaust-choking parking lot known as the 91 Freeway.

Tio’s boasts, on its nearly blocklong property that includes two patios and the owner’s home, one of the largest and most impressive folk art assemblages this side of Joshua Tree.

Everywhere you look, there are towering figures of men and women, both anonymous and famous (Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa), made from found objects and topiary wire. Fountains from old pipes and tile pop up where you least expect them. Imitation palm trees rub bark with real ones. Figures made of wood, plaster, metal, tile, stone and whatever’s handy loom over roofs. A Mayan temple and a chapel said to be consecrated by the Catholic Church formed from beer bottles and stucco are furnished with religious and secular totems in equal number.

From comical lucha libre mannequins to crazed Barbie dolls gone wild, from “Star Wars”-inspired robots to whacked-out unicorns that spill out into the parking lot, the whole thing is a glorious mess, a conglomeration of one man’s vision and obsession. And that’s just outside. The inside seating area is nearly covered with tile mosaics, fish and lobsters the dominant motif.

Wait, it gets better once you know the backstory. And, with something this lavish, there’s always a backstory.

This is the work of one Martin Sanchez, 47, owner of Tio’s and an immigrant success story. He grew up poor in Sahuayo, a speck of a town in the Mexican state of Michoacan, cleaning shoes as early as age 4. He came to the U.S. as a teenager, in 1984, and did whatever he could to get by, up to and including selling oranges at freeway offramps. He and wife Concepcion eventually started selling tacos out of a converted hot dog cart around town, hustling the lunch and dinner crowds downtown. He became a legal resident via the 1986 federal amnesty. By 1990, he opened Tio’s about four blocks down Mission Inn Avenue from the Riverside Art Museum.

What adds deeper layer to what is an inspiring tale of entrepreneurial success – poverty to prosperity, and all that – is that Sanchez embraced his artistic side and started constructing whimsical objets d’art from materials used and (ordinarily) discarded at a restaurant, detritus such as cleaning-supply cans, beer bottles, plastic cups, trays and broken plates, corks and cans and soda caps.

Call it extreme recycling, but it goes beyond just finding creative ways to avoid a hefty city trash fee. Any toys his three children outgrew or broke, any Barbie doll relegated to a shelf for too long, heck, even the clothing that could no longer be passed down, all finds its way into the art.

And it’s arresting art, too, a little overpowering and lacking focus in places, but certainly a conversation piece for midweek business people lunching on the front patio.

“I actually bring people here when they come to visit,” said customer Lisa Erickson, of Riverside. “You gotta come on the weekends (on the back patio) and watch him work on new stuff, it’s a lot of fun. Riverside is kind of known for being artsy, and this is an extension of downtown art district. People know this place.”

People beyond Riverside, too. Tio’s Tacos has been featured on the MTV show “Extreme Cribs,” the late Huell Howser dropped by with his PBS crew, the Food Network taped a spot, and the big three of Spanish-language TV, Univision, Telemundo and TV Azteca, visited as well.

Sanchez’ eldest daughter, Stephanie, 23, sort of the family spokesperson, said her father never expected such attention, but obviously welcomes it. She stressed, however, that her father’s motivation had little to do with promoting the restaurant. The art is his way of making use of objects other might deem trash, since as one of 10 children whose father died young in Mexico, Sanchez lacked luxuries like toys and learned to make do with what he could scavenge.

“My fathers vision was always to create a different unique place where people can feel out of the regular restaurant routine,” she said. “The art has been popular because we believe it’s very rare that someone is willing to create art with ‘trash’ it’s a new way to go green. … The attention it has been receiving, especially these past couple of years, has been a huge blessing that we are very grateful (for).”

Sanchez, in a 2007 Riverside Press Enterprise interview conducted in Spanish, said, “Sometimes, I think to myself, ‘How can I throw this away when there are people in Mexico who don’t even have anything?’”

For the Sanchez kids – Stephanie’s two sisters, Kimberly, 19, Maiten, 8 – this has meant growing up in something of a fish bowl, because the Sanchez home, resplendently painted pink, sits next to the restaurant. And, yes, the patriarch has adorned the roof and sides with all sorts of characters, including a person riding a bike (one of the girls’ old bikes) off the front of the roof. People lurk with cameras snapping shots of their home as well as the grounds of the restaurant.

“It has been something that is hard to grasp for our family and friends, because we never have privacy, but we have grown up in this environment, so for my sisters and (me), that’s all we know,” Stephanie said.

“Many people are curious to see inside, and it’s interesting because the back patio is our backyard, and many people don’t know that this is our home, not just our restaurant. For that reason, we had to install a surveillance system due to people always trying to come in our house, not realizing that they were trespassing (in) our home. It’s a blessing and a curse. Let’s say that I have no excuse to be late to work.”

A small price to pay for the sake of art, perhaps. Stephanie said the family encourages visitors and lets people pray and hold the occasional service in the chapel erected from beer and soda bottles.

“The chapel is a small way of being grateful for the things that we have been blessed to have,” Stephanie said. “My mother always wanted a private place to worship in our own home, but since we live and work here, my father created that small chapel to honor her wish, … creating it with his twist of art using nothing but recycled pieces – anything from twin bunk beds to benches (made of) broken glass.”

A guest book, as at a museum or place of worship, allows people to sign and leave the Sanchezes a message.

On the day I visited, the book was open to this missive from a Michelle Perez, of Puebla, Mexico: “Me gusto este lugar. Que Dios me los bendiga.”

Translation: “I like this place. May God bless me.”

Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis

Tio’s Tacos

3948 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside

Hours: 8 a.m.-10 p.m.

Information: (951) 788-0230;