Tio's Tacos In Riverside Hides A Vast Outdoor Sculpture Museum

One of the sculptures outside Tio's Tacos in Riverside. (Audrey Ngo/LAist)

There are plenty of places to eat in downtown Riverside but one restaurant stands out — and not just for its Michoacán-style chicken soft taco plate.

The front patio of Tio's Tacos, located on Mission Inn Ave., features a pair of towering sculptures, a 30-foot high man and woman, built from countless aluminum cans and old machine parts.

They're two of the more than 100 works of recycled art dotting the restaurant's one-acre property. It's like a vast outdoor museum, although Tio's Tacos owner and artist, Martin Sanchez, has a more humble description.

He refers to it as "Martin and his trash."

Sanchez says his love of art began long before he knew what that word meant. He has been turning reusable items into works of art since he was a kid in Sayuaho, in Michoacán, Mexico.

Two 30-foot tall sculptures at Tio's Tacos in Riverside. (Audrey Ngo/LAist)

When Sanchez was four, his father, the source of his family's income, died, leaving them destitute. Along with his 10 siblings, Sanchez pitched in, doing odd jobs for people around town.

"I cleaned the shoes. I wash the car. It gave me a little money or something," he says.

Since store-bought toys were out of the question, Martin made his own out of rocks, sticks, cardboard and whatever else he could find.

The first thing he made was a toy car, using a sardine can as the cab and caps from soda bottles as wheels. Soon, he had made enough toy cars to share.

"We played together, my friends and my brothers, but I think I have more imagination," Sanchez says.

Sculptures outside Tio's Tacos in Riverside. (Audrey Ngo/LAist)

Imagination eventually took a backseat to necessity.

In 1984, Sanchez came to the United States and settled in East L.A. He started selling oranges by freeway exits. Selling oranges turned into selling hot dogs, which turned into selling tacos.

Only five years after arriving in Southern California, he and his wife, Concepcion, opened Tio's Tacos in Riverside.

From the start, the business was an all-hands-on-deck affair.

"I think getting into the family business was since we were born," says their 23-year-old daughter, Kim. "Since my parents were always working, we were always here." Along with her two sisters, she now helps run the restaurant.

Handprints in the cement at Tio's Tacos, known for its recycled art sculptures, in Riverside. (Audrey Ngo/LAist)

A few years after Tio's opened, Martin's creativity was reignited. Kim had accumulated several old Barbie dolls, 99-Cent Store finds and plastic Happy Meal toys that didn't have much longevity.

"They would break easily and I would think that they didn't work any more, but my dad kinda got this spark of imagination and he did a statue out of all of 'em," Kim says.

That first statue, a woman made from bunches of small toys wired together and wearing rows of Barbies as a dress, still stands on the outskirts of the restaurant's patio.

Sanchez didn't stop there. He and his family had saved piles of recyclables that needed a home.

"When I live in Mexico, I don't have nothing," Sanchez says. "When I come by the United States, I see that people throw away everything. I go to clean in the backyard, and I see that everything's recycle. And I think, 'I can make something with this recycle.'"

Fast forward to today. Steps away from the Barbie statue are two life-sized figures of Star Wars droids R2-D2 and C-3PO, made from boom boxes, old remote controls and aluminum cans.

Two sculptures, of Star Wars characters R2-D2 and C-3PO, at Tio's Tacos in Riverside. (Audrey Ngo/LAist)

Look down, and you'll spot old house keys embedded in the patio walkway. Look up, and you'll notice stuffed animals hang from a tree branch.

All this could look like a big mess but instead, in the great tradition of American outsider artists, it looks like one person's obsession.

One of the most stunning pieces is a walk-in teepee with thousands of beer bottles horizontally embedded in its gray cement walls. Sunlight beams through the bottles, casting green rays inside the teepee, which features a glistening chandelier adorned with aluminum bottle caps.

The patio is clean and colorful. If you pause to look at the ground near the entrance, you can see tiny handprints. They belong to Kim, who was about 7 years old when she placed her palms in that once wet cement.

"Anytime my dad would make cement, he would call us over and put our hands, so you kind of see that throughout the property," she says.

Kim Sanchez and her father, Martin Sanchez, stand outside Tio's Tacos. He opened the restaurant and built the hundreds of recycled art sculptures at the Riverside taqueria. (Audrey Ngo/LAist)

For Sanchez, walking with his daughter through the many works of art he has made, always stirs up memories.

There's the old playhouse that he built for Kim when she was a kid. More of Kim and her sisters' handprints show up here and there, embedded in the patio's cement floor.

Although Sanchez smiles when he talks about his sculptures, if you ask him to name a favorite, he has another answer.

"My daughters and my wife. My family," he says. They are the main ingredient in Tio's Tacos success.

As for the sculptures, you don't have to pay a fee to see them. Martin Sanchez says anyone is welcome to stop in and look around, but don't expect to see them all in one visit.

The exterior of Tio's Tacos, known for its recycled art sculptures, in Riverside. (Audrey Ngo/LAist)

You can listen to Take Two's segment about Tio's Tacos by clicking here. It starts at 30:35.