The problem with inviting Kevin La to lunch is that he will almost certainly convince you to order everything on the menu.
He’s already put the hard sell on the crab and anchovy paw paw salad (fresh and pungent), the Lao sausage (stuffed in-house) and the ox tongue (a Lao delicacy). But he saves the most enthusiastic hand gestures for an explanation of how to make crispy fried rice (the restaurant’s specialty). First, they shape sticky coconut rice into balls and fry them. Then they pound the balls into pieces and toss in cured ham, peanuts, and a stack of green herbs. “It’s textural galore man,” he says. Why would anyone bother serving rice any other way?
Kevin La likes to talk food when he isn’t working his day job as an optometrist.Credit:Rhett Wyman
Talking about food is, after all, Kevin La’s job, and he is very good at it. Better known as Sydney Food Boy, he has amassed more than 250,000 followers across TikTok, Instagram and YouTube with snappy and vibrant reviews of Sydney’s best food joints. His hundreds of videos have helped fans find the best banh mi in Cabramatta, Filipino barbecue in Lakemba, and the joys of Burwood’s many malatang joints.
La says his followers fall into two broad categories: newcomers keen to explore the vibrant food scene in Sydney’s west; and locals who have grown up in these places but have never seen the food represented on the screen or in the paper. I fall into the first group – having visited Sydney only twice before moving here for a Herald traineeship in March 2022, La’s videos helped me discover the city beyond the bridge and the Opera House.
La has cut a gym class short to meet me half an hour earlier than planned at Lao Village, just around the corner from his childhood home in Fairfield. Time is a precious thing for the 26-year-old, who works full-time as an optometrist while doing food reviews on his days off. He admits his 9-to-5 has little to do with food reviews, but it does give him a chance to talk to people from all walks of life. Food is an easy topic.
“I would ask, ‘where do you normally eat? Where would you go with your family, where’s a good place to try Colombian cuisine?’” He says. “You can relate to anyone through food. It’s such a beautiful medium.”
The spread: paw paw salad, sticky rice, Lao sausage, ox tongue and crispy fried rice.Credit:Rhett Wyman
Not everyone is so eager to give up their secrets. As our food arrives at our table (barely 15 minutes after ordering), La strikes up a conversation with the family seated next to us. He asks what they’ve been up to this morning (they’ve been to the zoo), and whether they come here often (all the time). They have recognised La as Sydney Food Boy, and the father, who is Lao, playfully asks him not to share the restaurant with the masses: “I’d like to get a seat every now and again!”
It’s not easy getting a table here on the weekend as it is. La suggests meeting early; Lao Village and the nearby Song Fang Khong are both known for serving the best Lao food in the area. “Every family in this community would have grown up in one restaurant or the other,” La says, but his family went to both. Lao Village has since moved to bigger digs around the corner, but when La was growing up, the two restaurants sat side by side with identical flyscreen doors and lace curtains. “It felt like you were walking into someone’s house,” he recalls. “As a child, this was my understanding of what Lao food and Thai food was. It’s like the benchmark.”
Kevin La explains how to make crispy fried rice: “It’s textural galore, man.”Credit:Rhett Wyman
La and his three younger brothers were raised a five-minute walk from here by Cambodian parents of Chinese descent. He has fond memories of being led around Cabramatta produce markets and served food influenced by cuisine from all over Asia (both his parents were born in Cambodia, and his father also spent time in Vietnam before emigrating to Australia).
“Every night on the dinner table, it was something different,” he says. “You never saw Mum or Dad with a recipe book, it was just things that they grew up eating themselves, things that they remembered seeing their parents cook, and then going off to taste.”
La’s father worked seven days a week at a fruit and vegetable shop when Kevin was growing up, and he often only saw his parents in the evenings. He envied the kids at school who travelled. When he left high school, he wanted to see it all. “It was the thing I wanted to do most because I never got to do it as a child.”
He visited family in Vietnam, France, Canada and Singapore. After finishing his optometry degree at UNSW, he put his skills to immediate use, travelling to Nepal as a volunteer in 2019 to provide eye treatment in remote communities.
The idea for Sydney Food Boy was born on a 10-day stay with family in Singapore on the return leg home. He had visited the city on layovers a handful of times before, but this was the first time he had a chance to explore the city for himself.
“I would go out every day, and say, ‘I’m gonna visit this hawker centre today, or I’m gonna visit this restaurant today’, and just explore and eat,” he says. “You can really see the influence of all the people that have been in and around Singapore over 200-odd years, and the food culture there stands out so much.
“I’d love to see visitors take a day or two to venture out to different suburbs and try food out here as well.”
“I wanted to come home and do the exact same thing here – I wanted the exact same feeling of exploring and travelling and eating cool food that I haven’t tried before.”
The first place La reviewed on his return home was an Afghani restaurant in Merrylands. Sydney Food Boy steadily built a following through the pandemic, working around the challenges of scattered trading hours and curfews in a part of the city subjected to the strictest and longest lockdowns in the state.
“It was a hard time for all. I tried to make the most of it,” he says. “I remember getting a few [optometry] shifts in Hurstville and getting so excited to try some Chinese food over that way.”
By 2022, Sydney Food Boy had hundreds of thousands of followers and brands lining up to advertise. But La still shoots and edits most of his videos on his phone, a practice that has become so ubiquitous he can come and go without his hosts ever knowing he was there.
“I try to be as normal as a diner as possible because that’s the experience you want [to see],” he says. Even still, snapping a picture or a video without interfering with the experience of eating is a skill La has had to hone.
“Don’t let the food go cold,” is his advice. “If you see your friends twitching their legs, it’s probably time to put the camera away.”
The invoice from lunch with Kevin La at Lao Village in FairfieldCredit:Rhett Wyman
As a tourist in his own city, La has been surprised to discover the Sri Lankan influence in Toongabbie, and the history of Swedish immigration to the beach areas of Manly and Bondi. “People know about the big hubs, like the Vietnamese in Cabramatta for example … but there’s all these community pockets that I didn’t know about.”
Reflecting on what he has discovered since that fateful 10-day layover in Singapore, he sees no reason why Sydney can’t become a city equally renowned for its diverse food scene.
“I think Sydney has what it takes, it’s more about appreciating it — we have everything here,” he says. “I’d love to see visitors take a day or two to venture out to different suburbs and try food out here as well.
“They’ll really get to see why Sydney is one of the greatest food cities in the world.”
As for what comes next, there is an ever-growing list of more than 200 restaurants to tick off. But he has no intention of giving up his optometry career for life as a food blogger. “A lot of people ask me why I haven’t quit my job, but I actually really enjoy being an optometrist. It’s what I studied for, it’s a separate passion for me.”
A few months ago, an email landed in Kevin La’s inbox asking if he would like to get dumplings with Premier Dominic Perrottet. He thought it was a scam. After verifying the identity of the sender through a quick LinkedIn search, he realised the invite was legitimate, and agreed to meet Perrottet in Haymarket to celebrate the Lunar New Year.
They didn’t chat politics, focusing instead on La’s upbringing and Perrottet’s love for smoked barbecue.
“Food will connect you to anyone,” La says. “Myself and the premier, we almost have nothing in common, when you think about it, besides growing up in Sydney. But when you love your food, the conversation just flows.”
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