Long before YouTube sensation Sonny Side was dining on duck blood soup, his idea of an exotic meal was popcorn shrimp at a Red Lobster in St. Cloud.
“We only had canned fruit growing up. I didn’t eat a fresh peach until I was in my 20s,” Side said last month during a phone call from his current home in Vietnam. “Even then, I wondered why it wasn’t in syrup.”
Side’s appetites have advanced since he launched “Best Ever Food Review Show,” a streaming sensation with more than 5.4 million subscribers who see the 35-year-old as a hipper version of fellow Minnesotan Andrew Zimmern.
Roughly twice a week, Side and his crew serve up a snack-sized episode in which the host samples local cuisine — and culture — from around the world with the kind of enthusiasm usually reserved for rock concerts.
In Madagascar, he earned his lunch by chasing down a chicken. He bonded with Indonesia’s Dani tribesmen over a pig feast. In one of his most memorable adventures, Side traveled to Iran, where sharing ice cream shakes with his guide did more for diplomacy than most summit meetings. In December, he talked politics and protests while hitting Hong Kong’s “dai pai dongs” (cooked food stalls).
But before becoming an unofficial ambassador, Side, whose birth name is Will Sonbuchner, was a landlocked Minnesotan competing with his siblings over supper.
“The way I grew up, you ate what was affordable and easy,” he said. “Every dinner had a big plate of toast, so if you didn’t get enough hot dish, you could fill up on bread.”
After graduating from Sauk Rapids-Rice High School, Side struggled to find his footing. He flunked out of three colleges and took dead-end jobs, including a stint as an Applebee’s server. It didn’t last.
“Over time, I got three strikes and I was out,” he said. “The last one came when I forgot to put in a dessert order from a very large man. I was just trying to help.”
At 24, he rolled the dice and moved to Asia with roughly $2,000 to his name.
“The best thing St. Cloud did for me is offer a lack of diversity that made me curious enough to want to leave it,” he said. “I needed to do something really different and change my course.”
He spent eight years in South Korea, teaching English and learning film production, which led to some video work for second-tier K-pop stars.
In 2017 he started assembling a crew for his online show, one he readily admits owes a lot to Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” and Zimmern’s “Bizarre Foods,” shows he gobbled up during his overnight shifts as a caretaker in a St. Cloud assisted-living facility.
Zimmern welcomes the competition.
“The best thing to happen to food and food media of all types is the democratization of the internet,” said Zimmern. “While it’s allowed for a ton of garbage to air, and that has to be waded through, it has made it possible for thousands of superb, funny, smart folks to get their content out there. The winners are the viewers.”
What differentiates Sonny Side from his heroes is his no-frills approach.
The production team is less than a dozen people. The flashiest part of the host’s wardrobe is a red bandanna that he uses to keep the sweat out of his face and disguise his receding hairline.
While “Best Food” is free to watch, Side cajoles viewers to pay for membership into an online club that offers behind-the-scenes footage and monthly Q&As.
Side generally skips the fancy restaurants to wander through street markets, where the price of a steaming bowl of pho is often a 10th of what you’d fork over in an American restaurant.
Part of the show’s mission is to alleviate fears of gorging at an establishment without tablecloths — or even tables.
“Just because you’re eating at a restaurant where you don’t see them preparing your food doesn’t guarantee your safety,” he said. “With local street food, you’ve got a better chance to see them making your meal. I’ve worked in restaurants. It’s a mess back there. I guess ignorance is bliss.”
Side is far from done hopscotching the globe. He hopes future shows will spotlight Somalia and even Minnesota. But for now, he’s staying put in Vietnam. Despite a low number of reported coronavirus cases in his adopted country, traveling internationally at the moment isn’t prudent.
Instead, he’s finding plenty of stories close to home, including a series on how local factories produce noodles and sausage in mass quantities.
“I don’t want viewers to become Vietnam-fatigued, but we’ve got enough content here to keep us busy for the next year,” he said.
Side said he doesn’t miss eating in America — fast-food franchises are everywhere in Vietnam — although he confesses to one craving: stale appetizers that have been under a heat lamp too long at Applebee’s, washed down with overpriced beers.
“They may have fired me,” he said. “But that’s my guilty pleasure.”