Thanin Viriyaki is a photographer with an unusual hobby: he visits mom and pop restaurants, takes professional-quality photos of his food and gives the pictures to the restaurant owners. In the photo above, he’s staring at a feast at Luang Prabang Market, a Laotian cuisine spot in Euless that’s one of his favorite spots. It’s obvious why Viriyaki likes to eat where he does, but donating the pictures? That’s a different story.
Viriyaki grew up in restaurants. His first job was at a Fort Worth Chinese diner owned by his Thai mother and Chinese-Thai father. That experience stuck with him as he embarked on a career in photography, shooting weddings and ads for brands like Toni & Guy and DFW Airport.
When he’s not working, Viriyaki frequents small, family-run restaurants in the Dallas area, ordering meals and uploading the pictures to services like Yelp and Facebook. He has uploaded more than 3,000 photos to Google Maps, where they have been viewed a total of 75 million times. When the restaurateurs ask, he gives them his pictures for free.
Recently, Viriyaki and I got together to have lunch (and take photos, of course). He explained how his hobby started and why he gives away his work.
How did your upbringing in your family’s restaurants impact what you do now? My father opened a Chinese diner in downtown Fort Worth. I got my first job there when I was 16, cooking, cleaning and doing a bit of everything there. I was there almost 10 years. [Takeout] is an interesting industry because your main clientele is either in a bad mood or could easily be in a bad mood. They say, “I need fuel. I have to eat, I have to eat so fast.” They’re in that transactional mood of consuming food more than, say, a fine dining restaurant.
I like the fact that I’ve been through all of this because I’m prepared when I go to these places and photograph them. It lets me relate to them and empathize with them as they carve out their niche in this world.
Part of me wants to help people from similar backgrounds, people who come over and put all their hopes and dreams in those places. Whenever I see a new place pop up, I want to go out there, buy some food, take some pictures, put them online and hope they pin the needles for some people who aren’t sure, there to eat.
Most [restaurant owners] come by, especially the first generation, and all they know is, “I know I like this food. I know I need four walls and a ceiling. I’m going to open a place.” They don’t think about things like logos or marketing.
But that’s also great because they don’t prepare food for anyone but themselves which gives the food that special authentic taste. While some of the other locations need to cater to the larger demographic to survive. Something my dad always said was, “We need to make it sweeter for Western palates.” Broadest demographic, right?
When I go into these mom and pop places and photograph them, I want to help them because we want that genuine taste to survive in the community. My father is now deceased but I really wish he could see the evolution of the American palate.
what is your process I go in and eat. I shoot fast. I’m just ordering my food and taking some quick shots. Then I will put pictures online. I don’t push my services. I don’t even have a business card. Sometimes companies will notice the photos online and ask, “Hey, can I get these pictures?” I’ll say, yes, take them. I do not mind. Use them for whatever. Sometimes I’ll send you the whole folder, full resolution, no watermark. If they come back later and hire me for paid work, that’s great. If they don’t, that’s okay too.
How do you support this hobby? I photograph weddings and commercials. I make my money from photos to the point where I can give. Also, shooting food for subsistence is already being fed. That takes away one thing you have to spend money on. I recently ran out of space in my fridge. My fridge turned into a mortuary, storing food for five days, and I ended up thinking emotionally, okay, I can let go of those two chicken wings I thought I was going to eat.
Have you ever had negative backlash like a company saying you don’t want to take pictures? Once only. Town Hearth on my birthday. They said, “You can’t take pictures with a professional camera.” They have rules, cool, so I used my crappy phone and took dark, grainy photos. If you look at Yelp, these are all dark, grainy photos. Terrible. Direct Flash. But they make so much money they don’t care and hey those are their rules and I respect them.
food is great But why would you spend so much time photographing your food? Food is art, right? That sounds pretentious when a McRib is sitting in front of me, but someone designed this look anyway.
The cool thing about food photography is that I can translate their art with my art. Her art, the art of cooking, is a fleeting moment. Enjoying your art form means destroying it. I find it quite interesting to document that.
I try to surround myself with delicious food, nice people, beautiful photos and fast WiFi. That’s it. Just these four things. The biggest drama I have in my life is: what am I going to eat today? It’s quite a nice life.
Five great under-the-radar restaurants
We asked Thanin Viriyaki to recommend some favorite restaurants that don’t invest in traditional marketing. He pointed out these gems to us.
Quoc Bao Bakery
3419 W. Walnut St., Ste. 104, garland
“I once bought 12 bánh mìs in anticipation of a snowstorm. I had set up my living room to photograph jewelry, so I had this white infinity wall type background. My test shot was a pyramid of bánh mìs.”
Asiannights Lao-Thai cuisine & bar
2905 N. Beach St., City of Haltom
“This place is so good. I rank it with Luang Prabang Market in terms of food quality. The outside looks very unassuming, but I don’t know a single person who loves Asian food who wasn’t impressed.”
11445 Emerald Street, Ste. 101
11407 Emerald Street, Ste. 121
“These Soju 101 pizzas are underrated. They are in this unfortunate situation that they are in Old Koreatown, and the new Koreatown is newer and more beautiful. Old Koreatown doesn’t get enough love. The place next to it definitely needs more love: the original DanSungSa. The one in Carrollton doesn’t have the same vibe. There is no other place with this atmosphere.”
Orchid City Fusion Cafe
2135 Southeast Pkwy., Ste. 101, Arlington
“It’s got that weird Asian mom and pop design, funky/quirky decor, but the food is great. They are known for their bò né, a Vietnamese breakfast dish [steak and eggs].”
Brian Reinhart became D Magazine’s food critic in 2022 after writing about restaurants for six years Dallas Observer and the Dallas morning news.