Petty Officer Second Class Jonantoni Suarez huddles over the glass display case at the front of Bob’s Market in Los Angeles, perusing the collection of officially licensed The Fast & The Furious model cars.
“They’re selling these cars for $50!” Suarez complains. “They’re like $7 at Target.”
Over the past 22 years, The Fast & the Furious has grown from a hybrid street racing-heist flick to a series of international espionage action spectacles—and one of the highest-grossing film franchises of all time. The franchise features wrestlers, rappers, international action stars, one of the highest-paid actors in the history of cinema and two perennial Oscar nominees, one of whom was given damehood by the late Queen Elizabeth. Its stunts are some of the most complicated ever attempted, and its set pieces have taken audiences all over the world, to Rio de Janeiro, Dubai and even the final frontier: In F9: The Fast Saga (2021), the F&F crew, drawing inspiration from Wile E. Coyote, attaches rockets to a car and launches it into space.
And yet the beating heart of the franchise, at least as far as fans are concerned, is Bob’s Market, a rundown corner store in Angelino Heights, a micro-neighborhood nestled atop a hillside in Echo Park, on the Eastside of Los Angeles.
Suarez, a 22-year-old Coast Guard boatswain stationed in Miami, never thought he’d visit California. But now that Coast Guard training has brought him to town, stopping by Bob’s Market was a must. “I grew up with those movies,” Suarez tells me, “and this is where everything started,”
It’s a sunny Friday afternoon in LA, and Suarez is one of dozens of tourists to make the pilgrimage to Bob’s Market and bask in the epicenter of a global action movie hit machine. Over the next three hours, Bob’s will attract customers from as close by as next door, to as far away as Europe and South America. If the emotional throughline of the F&F films is “family,” then Bob’s is where that international family congregates.
We’re introduced to Bob’s Market (Toretto’s Market & Cafe in the films) four minutes and 40 seconds into the original, 2001 The Fast & The Furious movie. Brian O’Conner, the handsome boy wonder protagonist, played by the late Paul Walker, pulls up to the diner counter at Toretto’s and orders the usual: tuna on white bread, no crust. O’Conner has been eating at Toretto’s regularly recently, ostensibly to hit on Mia Toretto (Jordanna Brewster), namesake of the famed eatery. The audience doesn’t know it yet, but O’Conner’s crush is just a ruse; he’s actually been coming to Toretto’s because it’s a rallying point for members of Los Angeles illicit street racing scene, a subculture O’Conner, an undercover FBI agent, has been tasked with infiltrating. Mia’s tough guy ex-boyfriend, Vince, shows up and fights O’Conner in the street, and O’Conner proves he can scrap despite his pretty boy good looks. Mia’s big brother, Dominic (Vin Diesel, in the role that has come to define his career) breaks up the fight, thus setting in motion an outlandish series of cops and robbers films.
In real life, Bob’s not a café, it’s a mini convenience store. If this were New York, we might call it a bodega, but that would imply Bob’s could serve you a bacon, egg, and cheese, which it can’t. Unlike Toretto’s, Bob’s doesn’t have a diner counter and no hot food is served here. Bob’s is the kind of bare bones corner market where, in this author’s personal experience, the cashier rolls her eyes when you tell her you don’t have cash and you have to buy a 33.8-ounce SmartWater with Apple Pay.
“This is the center of the neighborhood,” Oscar Gonzalez, a 57-year-old retired auto mechanic, tells me. Gonzalez is posted up on a dilapidated bench in a small, triangular park across from Bob’s, nursing a Modelo tallboy he purchased at the market. (He drinks here most days until the afternoon, when he takes shade on the church steps across the street.)
Gonzalez has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years and currently rents the house directly next to Bob’s. Long before it was an international tourist attraction, Bob’s was a cornerstone of the predominantly Hispanic American community. “[Bob’s] is the last stop. Your wife calls and she says, ‘Can you bring me milk?’ And you stop here.”
The namesake owner, Bob, was a Korean-American man, according to Gonzalez, and Bob sold the shop eight years ago to another Korean family. Inside, I ask to speak to the owner, and a Korean man who identifies himself simply as John, emerges. “They come from all over the world!” John says of Bob’s customers, before retreating back into the shop’s storage space and declining to answer any more questions.
As if John had manifested her himself, a woman from Germany emerges across the street, photographing Bob’s market with a telephoto lens.
The community around Bob’s is an anomaly. Nestled upon a hilltop in Echo Park, Angelino Heights is known for its iconic collection of 19th century Victorian mansions, many of which have been conferred historical monument status. The vibe is equal parts comforting and spooky. You crest a hill and all of sudden you’re transported into a Everytown, U.S.A., that’s frozen in time and shockingly quiet despite being jammed between the shops and restaurants of Sunset Boulevard to the north and the east and the 110 freeway to the south.
People don’t come here around the world because they’re architecture buffs, though—they visit Angelino Heights because it’s a popular filming location. The music video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and the WB series Charmed were shot here, but the most popular attraction, by far, is Bob’s Market.
“Once it was spotted on social media, that’s when it grew and grew,” 23-year-old Echo Park resident Kobe Cea tells me. Cea, Gonzalez’s nephew, named after the Laker great, has lived in the community his entire life, and says that foot traffic to Bob’s increased after the death of Paul Walker. Walker was the main co-star alongside Diesel, and fans of the films held vigil outside of Bob’s after Walker’s untimely passing in late 2013. (In a cruel twist, Walker died when he crashed his Porsche supercar.)
TikTok and Instagram are riddled with posts from people posing in front of Bob’s Market, flexing their rides. “I understand that a famous movie was done here, but for me, it’s just, like, the neighborhood’s little market,” Cea says.
Bob’s follows the trajectory of the films in that sense—at first, their appeals were distinct to LA, but now they’ve become international phenomena. The Fast & The Furious, the original film, is a movie about Southern California car culture. (Although that itself was creative license: The original film was loosely based on a 1998 VIBE magazine article about street racing culture in Brooklyn and Queens.)
Bob’s retains much of its local appeal. In my short time there, a couple of LA bros—a floppy-haired, sleepy-eyed 21-year-old man from Mid-City, and Joseph Camerano, a 36-year-old Pasadena resident who bears a striking resemblance to Vin Diesel—went out of their way to stop at Bob’s.
“This is the birth of the scenario, the foundation of the movie, the culture of LA,” Camerano says. “It feels like home.” I ask the 21-year-old why he would drive 30 minutes out of his way just to buy two bottles of Essentia. “They know me here,” he tells me before peeling out of the parking lot in his extremely loud royal blue Ford Mustang.
The films, however, have virtually no connection to Los Angeles or car culture in general anymore. They’ve become espionage thrillers set in exotic locales, seemingly to attract an ever-wider global audience.
“I really miss the old aspects of the films,” says Joseph Mahoy, a 21-year-old from Anaheim who’s studying to become a mechanic. F&F is what initially piqued his interest in cars, he says. “I’m pretty sure we all do.”
A stream of international tourists continues throughout the day. A gorgeous young couple from Lyon, France, poses in front of the Toretto family home, just up the block from Bob’s, on Kensington Road. A woman from Colombia poses on the hood of a hot pink Volkswagen Beetle that is not hers. Yahir Yañez, a 30-year-old man visiting from Yucatán, Mexico, has his wife take photos of him in front of Bob’s. A trio of bros from Miedzyrzecz, Poland, buy F&F T-shirts from Bob’s. (Bob’s has embraced its association with the films, with F&F merch prominently displayed just inside the store’s entrance.)
“I loved the first one,” Bill Scheib, 40, visiting from Tampa, says about the F&F films. Scheib is a former street racer. His old souped-up Subaru could complete a quarter mile in 11 seconds, not quite the “10-second car” Dom Toretto is always on about, but impressive nonetheless. He bemoans the films moving away from their car enthusiast roots. “The first one was all about the cars. It wasn’t about robbing banks.”
Angelino Heights has made a concerted effort to distance itself from car culture, too. The neighborhood has gentrified in the 25 years Gonzalez has lived there, he says, and with the influx monied white residents has been an initiative to end its association with F&F.
By some quirk of urban design, the Angelino Heights neighborhood has exceptionally wide streets—60 feet by some measurement, 50% wider than the standard 40 feet in LA—making them ideal for doing doughnuts and street racing.
Neighbors have grown tired of the car rallies. Just a few weeks prior to my visit, the City of Los Angeles, under pressure from Angelino Heights residents, installed more driving barricades directly in front of Bob’s Market, effectively ending the shenanigans at the five-way intersection right in front of the store. “Once they put this in, it shut down,” Cea says of the barricades. For him, at least, that amounts to a loss. “I miss it.”
The neighborhood will almost certainly remain a Mecca for action film fans, though. Even as the F&F films become increasingly disconnected from cars, and Los Angeles, from reality in general, the movies always feature the Toretto family home in Angelino Heights in the final scene. Judging by the six-foot high fence that’s been erected around the house and the bungee cord discouraging visitors from walking up its stoop, that’s getting a lot of attention, too.