It was already nearly impossible to score a plate of lechon at ORC Filipino Asian/American BBQ in Collin County, where the spit-roasted pork is only available on weekends in limited quantities. Then Mikey Chen, a food YouTuber with four million subscribers, filmed a video at the location that has earned some 630,000 hits since it was posted in April 2021. “The [owners] were inundated for weeks,” Texas Monthly’s barbecue editor, Daniel Vaughn, wrote in a review of ORC a couple months after.
Since moving from Seattle to Allen, north of Dallas, in April 2021, Chen has wasted no time tackling Texas’s booming restaurant scene, showcasing the state’s unmatched culinary diversity through his YouTube channel, Strictly Dumpling. In addition to ORC, he’s spotlighted Austin’s Salt Lick BBQ, Houston’s Golden Dumpling House, San Antonio’s Curry Boys BBQ, and Grapevine Tex-Mex favorite Tommy Tamale.
“There was an amazing response to [the video]—very strong for at least two months, if not longer,” notes Steve Barker, owner of Tommy Tamale, of Chen’s visit in April. “Customers are still coming in saying they saw the video and wanted to visit Tommy Tamale because of it. I’d say it was a very positive experience for us.”
As the influence of traditional restaurant critics wanes, the power vacuum has been filled by social media stars like Chen. For better or worse, it’s now largely online personalities whose words can really move the needle and draw crowds for a business. But how long does that spotlight last? And how do restaurants handle the newfound attention?
Chen’s signature video style is simple and unassuming: straight-to-camera confessional chatter and gratuitous bite shots. The editing is light and punchy. The absence of pageantry and pretension make him seem like a reliable narrator. One gets the sense Chen produces these videos because he genuinely enjoys doing it, not because he’s looking for a payout. But, to be clear, his content does generate revenue through ads on YouTube and brand partnerships, such as a hot pot starter set created in collaboration with Kitsby.
“When I first started in 2013, nobody was watching,” says Chen, who previously worked in human rights and filmed weddings for extra cash. “The food videos were just for my own personal enjoyment, and to keep a food diary. If you watch my earlier videos, you’ll see it’s ninety-nine percent my face talking and one percent shots of food. It wasn’t really thought out at all. And honestly, I’m not that artistic or good at producing. For me, it was just like, ‘I’m just going to talk and hopefully people like it.’ ”
Chen is aware of the boost his star power provides to small businesses, and he says he’s proud to be able to bring attention to those who deserve it. He also understands the importance of that on a personal level. Born and raised in Xi’an, China, Chen moved to the United States when he was eight. His family moved around a lot, working primarily in restaurants, including a buffet called Golden China they owned in Quincy, Illinois.
“We grew up extremely poor, and my parents owned a family Chinese restaurant that is our entire livelihood,” he explains. “I was managing a restaurant at fifteen, so I understand how important these small businesses are to the families involved. If I can do anything to help, I want to do that.”
Chen says this mission has been especially relevant for Chinatown establishments that have suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic and wave of anti-Asian hate. “It’s different now,” he says. “I remember when I was still living in Washington, I visited an amazing dumpling spot for one of my videos. The week after it was published, I got an email from the owners telling me they were thinking about shutting down the restaurant, but that they were able to keep it open after the video.”
Many restaurants have positive experiences after their Strictly Dumpling videos debut, though not every eatery sees lines out the door for weeks. “We definitely saw an uptick in visitors, but it wasn’t an insane number,” says Sean Wen of Curry Boys BBQ. “I’d say it was maybe around twenty percent busier than normal and lasted maybe two to three weeks or so. There was no crazy fanfare or camerawork, and I always appreciate how low-tech yet effective his setup is.”
While Wen says he recognized Chen and had already been a fan of the Strictly Dumpling videos, Chen says he rarely contacts a restaurant beforehand or tells them he’s coming. “I’m just coming in as a normal patron because I want the exact same experience anyone else would have,” he says. “I would never want special treatment. That’s not very fair. That’s not very realistic. I’ll go sit in a corner, and usually they’ll never know I was there.”
This anonymous approach creates trust with viewers who expect his honest opinion unsullied by conflicts of interest (this is the policy adopted by most critics, including Texas Monthly’s). But with the instant mass reach of media, restaurants may not be ready to receive such an increase in business overnight.
“The Strictly Dumpling video caused more damage and chaos than it did good,” says a Dallas-area restaurateur who wishes to remain anonymous. “It was an incredibly difficult time for our family, and the unexpected exposure brought a huge wave of crowds we could not handle. This led to unhappy customers and people leaving bad, one-star reviews.”
The restaurateur did see an increase in revenue overall, but says they wish Chen had been transparent and communicated with them prior to filming. “We’re a small family business operating with a super-small staff,” they said. “Most of our customers are regulars and locals from the area. When he came to record, he didn’t tell us who he was, or ask if it was okay to film and upload a video about our restaurant. With the following he has, and knowing the impact it could cause, it would have been greatly appreciated if he had asked for permission first.”
Chen admits he hadn’t considered these types of consequences. “I will definitely keep this in mind in future videos, as negatively impacting a small business is never my intention,” he says.
To Chen’s credit, he never posts a negative video or a takedown of a small business. “I’m pretty meticulous about choosing the restaurant to start, but if I don’t like it and it’s a mom-and-pop shop, I stop filming,” he says. “I just finish the meal and leave, and I don’t mention it in any video. If a mom-and-pop shop is featured on my channel, it’s always positive.”
Though exceptions exist, Chen’s videos typically bring attention to venues that aren’t always first picks for the daily churn of mainstream food media, like Kim Son, a buffet popular with Houston’s Vietnamese community. Even after the initial postings, the videos continue to be seen and discovered by new viewers as Chen’s audience grows. That constant, fresh awareness typically translates into ongoing re-shares across social media platforms.
“More than immediate foot traffic, we generally see an increase in our social media engagement after this type of press,” says Chad Beck, head of content at Salt Lick BBQ. “Pages like Strictly Dumpling are great for encouraging people to add the Salt Lick to their bucket list.”
Chen’s staying power may come down to his stability and consistency. Despite the chaos of the pandemic, he has kept up his routine of visiting restaurants and uploading videos. These days, he has a team of three people producing content across YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook. He says his hope for this year is normalcy for restaurants and content creators alike. He’s also hoping to explore more of what his new state has to offer.
“Every time you look, there’s something new to find,” Chen says. “I just visited this spectacular steak house in the middle of Texas, in a town with a population of maybe seven hundred. Then there’s Austin—I know there’s a lot of great fusion places over there. I’ve got a lot left to do, and that’s why I chose this state.”