El Camino Real is a modest Mexican restaurant, tucked into one side of a shopping center that also includes a supermarket, an H&R Block, and a clothing store that calls itself Sickoutfits. It's counter service only, still serves its by-most-accounts-excellent carnitas on Styrofoam plates, and it might be the most popular joint in Orange County, California this week.
Although El Camino Real has always been a draw—almost 100 of its Yelp reviews include the word "crowded" or mention the line of customers waiting to order—its business has increased in the days since Kobe Bryant died, because the Los Angeles Lakers star was a regular visitor for more than 20 years.
Bryant's periodic drop-ins weren't a secret, and neither was his favorite meal, carne asada and flan. "He began coming because [his wife] Vanessa brought him to us. She once told us that she grew up in Fullerton, and that she and her mom have been coming here since she was 12," Marissa Castañeda, whose parents own the restaurant, told OC Weekly in 2016.
"People eventually take notice and greet him, and he’ll greet them back. He usually lets people know that he likes to enjoy his time with his family when he’s eating, but he’ll take pictures and give autographs when he’s done. Several times, he’s come into the kitchen and storage room to take pictures with all of the employees. He’ll laugh and talk with everyone."
A lot of those who loved Bryant, as a player, as a "regular" person, or both, seem to be making their way to Fullerton this week. "I drive by it and I thought today would be a day to come by and order some carnitas and flan," first-time customer Melissa Hidalgo told ABC7. "It was just my own way to pay some respect to Kobe Bryant and the family."
The restaurant's manager, Rodolfo Garcia, told several news outlets that Bryant had requested to be treated like anyone else who was waiting to carry their order back to their table. "One day [Bryant] came and told me, ‘Don't treat me like a star. I want to be another customer to you,’” he said.
Kobe and Vanessa were also frequent customers at Javier's, a more upscale Mexican restaurant in Newport Beach. "Kobe was more than a customer, more than someone who just ate at Javier’s, we considered him family," the restaurant wrote on social media. "From late nights after games sitting at the bar and enjoying food, to take-out dinners for his family, to watching his young beautiful children grow up. Kobe was one of the kindest people we have ever had the pleasure of knowing. A true gentleman."
Other spots well beyond the borders of Orange County have honored Bryant in their own ways. A coffee shop in Ventura, California is printing his picture on its lattes. A chicken wing restaurant in San Antonio added a mural of Bryant on the side of its building. And Soriano's Mexican Kitchen in Flint, Michigan is serving an $8.24 carnitas and flan meal for the rest of the week.
"[W]e will be offering up these specials as a tribute to the legend," it wrote on its website. " Stop by and celebrate his life and his legacy by sharing your favorite Kobe story or memory with us."