The Mexican Sublime

Posted November 8, 2007 in Eats

Tio’s Tacos is funky, kitschy, cool. Tio’s Tacos is Dali meets Diego Rivera with a side trip to take mushrooms with Anton Gaudi. Tio’s Tacos is ceramic watermelons and mariachi figurines, a chapel composed of beer cans and caps, beautiful fountains, and hanging fake carrots, oranges, grapes, pineapples and other sundry fruits hanging from the ceiling, while colored mosaic shells create a scene from the Littlest Mermaid, but only if the creators had dropped some blotter acid. Tio’s Tacos is gorgeous, stunning, and yet down to earth. It’s also a Mexican Restaurant. 

Martin Sanchez is both the owner and the artist, somehow juxtaposing art and lengua, surrealism with ceviche. And it works. Mostly. The art stands out so much, not terribly hard considering it’s within loogie distance of the bus station, that the food is bound to suffer by comparison. Imagine eating the best bowl of Italian pasta in your life in the Sistine Chapel, one might lose sight of their plate of food.

Yet the grub at Tio’s is gaze worthy when all is said and done. While it may be a bit of a mistake to judge a Mexican restaurant by the salsa it puts out on the table, it’s also something of what economists like to call a leading indicator. So far, so bueno. The salsa here is made both with care and enough cilantro to and a panache of chill to the spicy red stuff. The menu ranges from the mundane (the carne asada plate) to the interesting (the seafood cocktails look tasty) to the more challenging (think tongue or intestines). I settled on the camarones al Diabla, satanically spicy shrimps that floated in an amazingly tangy sauce that while hot was restrained by a touch of sweet, almost barbeque tang. The sauce itself was amazing, with slivers of tomatoes and onions thrown in for good measure, but was slightly marred by shrimp that could have been fresher. The seriously tasty rice, beans and corn tortillas contributed to making the plate a success but also served to remind me why I never order combination plates anymore—just a hell amount of food. 

Much later on (read: next day), I sampled the torta de carnitas I had ordered for take away, which turned out to be worth the wait, mostly due to the high quality pork, read very little gristle, and the salsa, beans, and delicious torta bread didn’t hurt either. I love tortas when they were harder to find in California than affordable housing. There’s also a ton of juices, smoothies, and horchata freshly made and ready to drink as well as cervezas.  I down a Corona as I attempt to figure Tio’s Tacos out.

Which is hard. Topiary wire structures filled with Barbie dolls, perfume bottles and pipe elbows compete for attention with signs in Spanish advising customers that there is a three-drink maximum when it comes to the brewskies. I can’t tell if the signs are an ironic joke or if there been incidents that made the signs necessary. With the signs in Spanish, the authentic food and the art I feel like I am in Mexico for a second, which feels great but adds to my confusion. Wishing wells sit near the Internet jukebox, while cars oblivious to the artistic vision that is Tio’s whiz by on their way to God knows. Maybe the place is truly the somewhat surrealistic mess it appears to be, both beautiful and bewildering. With a bowl of chips and a Pacifico in hand a guy could sure do worse.

Tio’s Tacos, 3948 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside, (951) 788-0230


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