Rubidoux, California, located in Riverside County, is nestled in the Jurupa Valley between the Santa Ana River and the Santa Ana Mountains. This fertile valley is known for its citrus, as one of the first areas in eastern California to be settled by Europeans and more recently, as the birthplace of baseball’s infamous Barry Bonds. Aviators and aviation enthusiasts know Rubidoux as the home of Flabob Airport (KRIR).
Often overshadowed by nearby Riverside Municipal Airport (KRAL), Flabob Airport, originally founded in 1925, is one of California’s oldest continuously operating airports. Flabob is named for machinists Flavio Madariaga and his aeronautical engineer partner Bob Bogen. Legend has it that in 1943 they were looking for a place outside of Los Angeles for their burgeoning machine shop with room for an airstrip. This would enable them to make aerial deliveries of supplies and parts. A little airstrip adjoining the village of Rubidoux was purchased and history was made.
Flabob is home to EAA Chapter One and a chapter of the Antique Airplane Association. EAA Chapter One, the mother of all chapters. Founded by pioneering aircraft designer Ray Stits, Chapter One is the first and largest locally authorized chapter outside of the original Milwaukee, Wisconsin, location. Over 11,000 Young Eagles have taken flight from the airstrip. Legendary stunt pilot Frank Tallman had a hangar that housed a military aircraft restoration shop and a production company that produced aerial photography and flying sequences for movies and television shows. Stunt pilot and acrobatic legend Art Scholl owned and operated an aerobatic school here. Needless to say, Flabob has a long and deep history in homebuilding, experimental and antique aircraft and aviation stewardship.
Like many precious gems, time, neglect and Flavio’s passing took its toll. In 2000, the Wathen Foundation, founded by the former head of the Pinkerton security company Thomas W. Wathen, bought the airport and saved it from going under. Since then, the Foundation has restored existing structures, upgraded the runway and taxiways, built a new large hangar and meeting place for EAA Chapter One and thankfully for the foodies, returned the airport café to its original splendor.
The Flabob Airport Café is housed in a building which was originally the cookhouse of the NCO Club at Camp Haan. Madariaga, the ultimate scrounger, bought the building for a dollar and dragged it from March Field (today know as March Air Reserve Base - KRIV) back to Flabob. He added a spacious porch and stone fireplace and erected in its present location on the flight line. The current incarnation of the café does its legacy proud. As Marshall Lumsden wrote in the November 2004 issue of Smithsonian’s Air & Space Magazine, “…the café is a portal to the old Flabob.”
I believe that Flavio would appreciate the 12-foot replica of the Wright Flyer outside the café scavenged from a former Rose Parade float. He would also be pleased with the “Flabob Express.” This classic 1940’s DC-3 has been housed at Flabob since 2001. It continues to fly at air shows, do scenic flights, tours and funeral fly-overs. It even gives the ** DC-3 personal flight experience** to those who want to put some DC-3 time in their logbook.
Take a seat at the counter after entering the café through Flavio’s porch. If you’re lucky, Irene will meet you with a cup of coffee and a “how you doin’ hun?” The café offers breakfast and lunch all day, every day. Their menu is a mix of standard breakfast fare, filling lunch sandwiches and a few surprises. It’s fast, plentiful, hardy, diner food. The perfect examples are the biscuits and gravy off the breakfast menu ($1.95 & $2.95). They’re everything a hash house connoisseur hopes for. The biscuits are light, buttery and un-hockey puck like. The gravy had that perfect nappé consistency and a sausage-with-gravy-not-gravy-with-sausage character.
The Hot Cakes & Griddled Items ($2.75-$4.75) are just passable. The omelets however ($4.75-$6.55) are a three-egg, fluffy affair with choices aplenty – everything from the plain to the classic Denver overflowing with ham, onions, and green bell peppers to the Steak Fajita snuggled next to a mound of rice, beans and tortillas. Pilots will find something unexpected. The restaurant knows its clientele. On a recent visit, heaping, steaming bowls of menudo ($5.25 & $6.25) constantly came flying out of the kitchen pass through. The broth has a hint of kick from the hot chile, a slight herbaciousness from the oregano and a great balance of chucky tripe and hominy. The only thing missing was a loaf of bolillo traditionally served on the side and the morning after hangover.
The Hot Sandwiches and House Specialties stand out on the lunch side. Burgers ($4.25-$5.95) and club sandwiches ($5.75-$6.25) are available if you must. A much better choice is the hot combo sandwich of sliced turkey breast loaf with tomato, bacon and Swiss on sourdough ($5.95). Even better is the hot meatloaf sandwich with potatoes and gravy ($5.95). It’s the kind of meatloaf sandwich that mathematically adds up to more than it component parts. It one of those sandwiches that is a balance of textures and flavors that both complement and contrast. Moist and flavorful and not just a hamburger stuffed in a loaf pan.
Flabob Airport Café does have what some what some may call drawbacks. It isn’t open for dinner like the D&D Airport Café at Riverside Municipal. It isn’t apologetic about its blue collar, army barracks ambiance and its stick-to-your-ribs cuisine. While D&D also offers a solid yet predictable menu of diner staples, the Flabob Café has a quality that makes you believe in the true meaning of nostalgia. Come on the right day and you might be lucky enough to sit next to Flavio’s son Don, Ray Stits and his wife Edie or Tom Wathen. I’m sure the stories and lies swapped are worth the price of 100LL.
Note: For a detailed history of The Flabob Café, see A Living Legacy for Sport Aviation by By John D. Lyon and David Gustafson.
Flabob Airport Café
4130 Mennes Avenue
Riverside, CA. 92509
Phone: (951) 686-6660
Hours: Open every day
7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
4130 Mennes Avenue
Riverside, California 92509
Phone: (951) 683-2309 ext. 102
The Wathen Foundation
A nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation Dedicated to preserving the history of Flabob and encouraging new involvement in aviation.
The above airport information is not for navigational purposes. Please obtain up-to-date airport information from the FAA before flight.