“You get hungry every day, so you might as well film it.”
That’s the attitude of Mike Chen, whose full-time job is to post videos on YouTube from his food adventures all over the world. His videos — many that eclipse 1 million views each — will highlight Dallas-area business more than ever, now that Chen has relocated from Seattle to the Dallas suburb of Allen.
Chen moved to Texas in part because he found an apartment that was half the price of his place in Washington state. But also, he’s working on opening a Korean steakhouse named Carne in Houston. Eventually, Chen hopes Carne will expand to several locations in Texas, including in Dallas.
Chen says Houston is a great food city and he considered moving there, but he doesn’t like the weather. “I fear humidity,” he says in his matter-of-fact way. It’s a trait his 5 million YouTube subscribers surely like.
“I don’t like the idea of walking outside and feeling like I’m in a steam bath. I figured Dallas would be the better option.
“And here I am.”
Chen was born in Xi’an, China, then moved to the United States when he was 8 years old. They lived all over the U.S., mostly in the Midwest, as his parents opened and closed Chinese buffets.
“I was working [in restaurants] since I was able to hold a plate without breaking it,” he says. “My whole life was spent in restaurants. Growing up around a buffet, I think that’s what helped build up my appetite.”
And it’s a serious appetite, y’all: He has two main YouTube channels, Strictly Dumpling and MikeyChenX, and he posts about four videos a week.
Here’s an edited chat with Chen about his move to Dallas and his love for food:
We know you’re a professional eater. Do you cook, too?
Mike Chen: I consider myself a very good cook. With the caveat being, the food I cook will never look good. But I guarantee it will taste good! … I could never be on, like, Chopped or something, because they’re going to reject my plate right away. … But I love making things from scratch. My best dish right now is my homemade noodles, which I think is restaurant quality.
I do have a cooking show that I want to focus more of my attention on. [Find it on YouTube — it’s called Cook with Mikey.]
One thing I love to feature is different cultural recipes. … The best way to experience a different culture is, really, to take a bite out of it.
How do you decide which restaurants to visit and feature on YouTube?
It’s pretty random. I don’t know what people do for fun, but I’m sort of a food nerd, so when I’m not doing anything else, I’m on Google, searching around for food. … I want to find these hole-in-the-wall places. This is a tip I have for people: You can actually Google “hole-in-the-wall.” Or Google the term “hidden gems.” Usually people don’t Google terms like that, they Google “best steak” or something.
I do get a lot of restaurants messaging me, asking me to come in. It’s hard to get to everybody.
Do your videos bring more business to the restaurants featured?
I definitely know that it helps … I remember finally going out [during the pandemic, to a place called Northern Dumpling in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland]. I went to a dumpling place and was eating on the hood of my car. I started a series called Eating on the Hood. … A week later, the owner messaged me and said, “Thank you so much, my wife was pregnant and we were about to shut down the restaurant.”
I always knew these videos help restaurant owners, but especially now, it could be a lifeline between survival or potentially having to close a business.
Do you tell restaurants before you show up for a video?
No, I don’t. And the reason I don’t is because I don’t want any special treatment. I don’t want them to do something different. I want to experience what somebody would typically experience in a restaurant.
I definitely don’t want anyone making a fuss over me. I just want to be a regular, paying customer.
What did you do before you were a YouTube vlogger?
When I graduated from college, I was working at a non-profit. I was really keen on helping bring awareness to human rights violations happening inside China. … That’s something I’m really passionate about. But I wasn’t making any money. So I was filming weddings to make ends meet, for $200 a day or something … living in a basement in Brooklyn.
That’s why I know a lot of the cheap eats in New York; I didn’t really have any money. How can I stretch $5 into a whole day’s meal?
I’ve only been here for a couple of weeks, so I’m still just scratching the surface. I’m really looking to try out more Tex-Mex.
There’s a huge Korean community here, a huge Vietnamese community here. I had Pho Pasteur [in Carrollton] and think they have the best broth I might have ever had.
What’s your most memorable YouTube video?
I really like the video I filmed in Japan. … I went [to a ramen shop] and waited for 5 hours. … I live for that stuff. I don’t care how long the wait is: If it’s good, I want to wait and experience all of it. That video was tremendously memorable because it’s in a city called Chiba, 40 minutes outside of Tokyo. I got there at 7 or 8 a.m. … The whole mealtime lasted, like, 15 minutes. The chef is very: Eat your food and get out.
All you hear is slurping. It’s so good that no one wants to talk. But I had to talk [for the YouTube video], so I’m trying to talk without being disruptive. It was just mind-blowingly good.