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Kobe Bryant and the Story of El Camino Real

The restaurant was one of Bryant’s favorites, and he was its most famous customer. A year after the Lakers’ star’s death, manager Rodolfo Garcia reflects on Kobe’s visits and the fans that visited to pay respect after the tragic day.

Rodolfo Garcia was at work when he learned that his most famous regular customer had died.

On Jan. 26, 2020, Garcia, the manager at El Camino Real, a no-frills Mexican restaurant in Fullerton, Calif., saw the notification on his phone that Lakers star Kobe Bryant, along with his daughter Gianna and seven other individuals had been in a helicopter crash that no one survived. “I was shocked,” Garcia says. “I couldn’t believe that it happened.”

Over the course of two-plus decades, Garcia had gotten to know Bryant and his family relatively well. Vanessa Bryant, who grew up in Fullerton, first took Kobe to El Camino Real when the two were dating, as it was a favorite spot of hers. “Treat me as a regular customer,” the future L.A. icon told Garcia on one of his first visits. “Don’t treat me as a star.” In the ensuing years, the two often brought their children with them when dining in. His favorite table was in the far right-hand corner, near the register.

It was at the restaurant, which sits nestled in between a dentist office and a bagel and espresso shop in an otherwise unspectacular strip mall, that Bryant insisted on waiting in line and ordering his meal in Spanish. He took a particular liking to their carnitas plate, carne asada tostada, aqua fresca de melon and flan. While fellow diners occasionally approached the Lakers’ star and his family, Bryant felt comfortable at the restaurant, telling Garcia, ”All the customers are my body guards.”


“To have him in our place, that was so special for us,” the restaurant manager says.

He hasn’t seen members of the Bryant family since the accident.

Since opening in 1993, El Camino Real has relied on word-of-mouth advertising to draw in its customer base. But last January, buzz around the understated, local joint was elevated to a broader level. In the wake of Bryant’s death, the Los Angeles Times mentioned Bryant’s affinity for their food in a story detailing his kinship with Latino fans and culture. Soon after, various local news stations reported segments on it and the nearly 30-year-old restaurant was quickly met with new customers, many of whom who lined up out the door as a means of honoring the late star.

“Kobe Bryant had great taste in food. I had to see for myself,” one Yelp reviewer wrote last January.

“Honestly I just wanted to be somewhere I knew Kobe went,” another wrote.


Fans ordered the “Kobe Bryant,” wanting to have their taste buds enjoy the same delicious bites of beans, steak, cheese, sour cream and onion that Kobe himself relished.

“It was great to have all those people, though sometimes we had too much people to handle,” Garcia says.

By spring, however, such lines fizzled out.

On March 19, California Governor Gavin Newsom ordered residents statewide to stay at home in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and prohibited restaurants from allowing dine-in customers. El Camino Real, which doesn’t operate a delivery business, was forced to rely solely on takeout orders.

Due to COVID-19, nearly one in six restaurants nationally, representing around 100,000 total, closed either permanently or long-term, a September National Restaurant Association study estimated. And the NRA predicted that same month that the industry was on track to lose $240 billion in sales by the end of 2020.

Garcia estimates El Camino Real’s sales have dropped 15% since the spring, but he’s worked to ensure the restaurant hasn’t had to let go of any of its nearly two-dozen employees.


With the 102-seat dining room now almost entirely deserted, El Camino Real has used the past few months to repaint the restaurant’s interior. In doing so, the numerous photos of Bryant posing next to El Camino employees were taken down. It was a telling gesture in a trying year.

However, when the dining room re-opens, the pictures of Bryant enjoying the restaurant’s food will return to the walls. Hopefully, customers will follow.

“It was a really hard year,” Garcia says. “We had to support this restaurant and support each other and keep going. And we are hoping for a better year this year.”