I never planned to spend time in Riverside. I think of it as the city we drive by at seventy miles an hour on our way to Palm Springs. In my long list of future travel plans, this Inland Empire city was always missing.
But then I met Jennifer Kolb, a tour director and fellow travel junkie who found herself without work at the beginning of the pandemic. She took a chance and decided to start her own tour company focused on her hometown called Riverside Sites & Bites. It was not an easy start, but fortunately she’s persistent. Today she offers an assortment of tours featuring the city’s food scene, street art, and even it’s ghosts.
Our family has always loved food tours, so when Jennifer invited me to join her three hour Taste of Riverside Food Tour, I jumped at the chance. Food is an essential part of any culture, be it a city, region, or country. It’s a way to learn about local people, restaurants, and the stories behind them.
About Riverside California
If, like me, you’re only vaguely familiar with Riverside, let me give a bit of background. This town was founded in 1870 by John North as a communitarian city. It was North’s dream that this would be a community of industrious and intelligent people committed to helping one another. Soon after its founding the city became the epicenter of the citrus industry in Southern California thanks to Eliza Tibbets and her planting of two Brazilian navel orange trees.
Today this mid-sized city is home to over 300,000 residents as well as the highly regarded University of California Riverside (UCR).
First Stop–Riverside Food Lab
We began our tour in front of the historic Fox Performing Arts Center which screened the public debut of Gone With The Wind in 1939. Like all the food tours I’ve had the pleasure of joining, we learned about local history and lore which helps set the scene for the food.
Our first stop was next to the theater at the Riverside Food Lab, a bustling food hall where we would enjoy our first bite. Currently there are fourteen eateries in the Food Lab featuring a wide array of cuisines including Creole, Lebanese, Mexican, and Japanese. We were here to sample Baba’s Hot Chicken. Founded by a UCR student, Baba’s is a quickly growing company with several locations in Southern California.
My only other experience with hot chicken was in Nashville several years ago. And despite ordering the mild fried chicken, I could barely eat it. So I was pleasantly surprised when biting into Baba’s mild version to discover that it was juicy and just a touch spicy. If however, you are like my husband, Jason, and love spicy food you may opt for medium, hot, or extreme.
Second Stop–Tio’s Tacos
Words don’t really do justice to Tio’s Tacos, so I hope that anyone reading this that lives in Southern California (or visiting) will make the trek here. And this is exactly the reason why I love food tours–being introduced to cool and unusual restaurants that were never on my radar.
Founded in 1990 by Martin Sanchez, Tio’s serves some seriously delicious Mexican food. But what sets it apart are the oversized sculptures made of recycled materials including cans, lids, and bottles. Most of the seating is outdoors with tables placed amidst the artwork. I understand from Jennifer that every time she visits there is something new to see. And while they do serve liquor including margaritas and micheladas, I highly recommend trying their excellent agua frescas.
Exploring Downtown Riverside
After our first two food stops, Jennifer shared with us some of downtown Riverside’s notable sights. We stopped by the Rise mosaic, strolled through Mariposa Alley, and appreciated the MLK and Ceasar Chavez memorials. At this point we were walking down Riverside’s five block pedestrian mall stretching from City Hall to the Convention Center. I definitely plan to return and explore more of this attractive mall lined with boutique shops, restaurants, and even a couple of museums.
Third Stop–Stone Church Brewing
After all of that walking, it was time for a beer. Fortunately our third stop of the tour was at Stone Church Brewing and Bistro. I love craft beer, so I was excited when we were presented with a sampler of four beers including an IPA, hazy, blonde, and stout. My son, Ryan, recently introduced me to hazy beers, and I definitely enjoyed the one here called Hallelujah Haze. A variety of tasty Spanish tapas accompanied our beer.
Founded by avid home-brewer, Bill Steinkirchner, in 2013, Stone Church Brewing has three locations in the Inland Empire, with the one in Riverside being their newest. I think I’ll start lobbying for a new location closer to my hometown of Newport Beach.
Final Stop–Cupcakes & Curiosities
A sweet treat was the perfect ending to our tour. After strolling past the historic Mission Inn we made our way to Cupcakes & Curiosities. This little bakery is tucked in the back of a courtyard, so it’s not easy to find. However, step inside and you’ll be rewarded with the warm, sweet scents of baked goods and cases lined with colorful cupcakes. The flavors include lemon lavender, coffee cinnamon roll, chocolate peanut butter, and many more. We enjoyed one of their seasonal offerings, peppermint mocha. Topped with a chocolate ganache, the chocolate mocha cake was rich and moist, but not too sweet. I liked the presentation of the cupcakes inside a colorful cup, similar to those used for ice cream, instead of the classic, pleated wrapper.
Why You Need To Book A Riverside Food Tour
One of the benefits of a food tour is the opportunity to sample a variety of restaurants in a short period of time. Each of the portions on this tour was small, but in total provided a complete meal. I left satisfied, but not stuffed. Along the way I gained a greater appreciation of Riverside and its role in the development of Southern California. In the future, instead of whizzing by on the freeway, I’ll be sure to get off and continue exploring this cool city. Thanks for making the introduction Jennifer!