If you pay attention to any news about California, you would think that Oakland’s best days are behind it. Although it’s always been considered a rough part of the Bay Area, Oakland is different and softer through the eyes of Victor Xie, an Oakland native and content creator behind the YouTube channel, Did You Eat Yet? His videos showcase the city through its vibrant community and the longstanding restaurants that have served its neighborhoods for decades.
On his channel, the flair of the typical foodie influencer is noticeably absent. Instead of money shots of expensive food, exaggerated expressions on video thumbnails, and proclamations of the food being the best he’s ever had, Xie pursues a quiet, nostalgic kind of storytelling. His videos are humble, shot only with a phone and a cheap tripod. Admittedly camera-shy, he rarely appears on screen, instead letting chillhop beats accompany his voice-overs as he shares anecdotes about his personal connection to the food.
Whether it’s exploring how Bui Phong bakery supplies Mexican businesses with bolillo for their tortas, reminiscing about iconic Chinatown staple Gum Kuo, or making traditional Cantonese zongzi with his family, his videos focus on the food as much as on the stories behind it. Every setting and restaurant seems to be deliberately chosen for the memories it evokes and the ways those restaurants serve the community. Like Xie says in the introduction to each of his videos, these aren’t food reviews or recipe videos, but "stories that I want to share from soaking in the diverse culture in this town through food."
Recently, Xie has released new content for Collection Two: Places I’ve Been, which features his food experiences out-of-state and abroad, as well as the culinary ideas he’s brought back with him.
I met with Xie in Castro Valley, where he lives now, to discuss his philosophy, his Oakland upbringing, the motivation behind his channel, and how to balance content creation while supporting your community.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Kelvin Mak: I remember watching your zongzi video and hearing Taishanese being spoken by you and your parents. I want to start from the beginning and ask why your parents chose Oakland when there are so many Cantonese enclaves all over California and the U.S. How did your family arrive here?
Victor Xie: Yeah, that's a super interesting question. So my mom's entire family emigrated to America way earlier on, before the ‘80s. During that wave of immigration, they were already established around the Sacramento/Bay Area. So in terms of skill sets that my parents had, they were brought in to work at sweatshops. So all my aunts, my mom, were all seamstresses. My grandpa, my uncle, they were in construction. That’s a pretty standard thing that we were seeing at the time with immigrants.
I think my family just wanted us all here in the Bay Area. They all lived in one place together, which was owned by family friends. So it just kind of expanded from there because me and all my cousins lived around that general area.
KM: I know you’ve had a couple side hustles before this, like GreenAcre, your (now defunct) clothing brand. You’re also a product designer at Yahoo Sports. What led you to start making content for YouTube as HiDidYouEatYet?
VX: I like to make stuff. I’ve always just been a creator. But I've always just been like a self-taught creator. I taught myself how to design. I've taught myself how to use all these tools, how to use a camera, all this stuff.
So before the pandemic, I moved out with my now wife, and I barely knew how to cook before that. Like, I could barely preheat an oven back then. I think when I moved out with her, I gained a bunch of curiosity about food, and also she was like, “Hey, you know, you have to do stuff,” because I wasn't doing anything, playing video games, I wasn't helping out around the house. Okay fine, so let me start cooking. And I think that's when I got fascinated and just obsessed with cooking, food, and supporting local businesses, especially with so many businesses closed.
KM: During COVID, when all these local spots were shutting down, I imagine you might have thought some of your old favorite spots were in danger of closing.
VX: Oh, for sure. And I think with the small businesses I was supporting and through social media, I was able to build connections with these people. I think with COVID, I actually started talking to small businesses on Instagram and became friends with a bunch of people like chefs, people that do pop-ups, things like that. And I'm like, all these people have stories to tell. Everyone that grew up in the Bay Area knows about these places and I think these stories are just an interesting thing to share.
You know, the food content world is super saturated. Like there's so much food content out there. Can I actually separate myself from everyone else? I don't know, but I think I have an interesting take on things. So that's why I wanted to inject my own personal take on it. I'm not trying to do food reviews, recipe videos or that really sexy take for Instagram views, right? I'm not trying to do that. I want to go a little beyond that. Just from my perspective as a first-generation Chinese American from Oakland, what is my perspective on this place? What is my story about this place?
KM: You also have this quote in videos, where you say your videos aren't food reviews or recipe videos, but “stories that you want to share from soaking in the diverse culture in this town.” Why do you think the connection between food and memory and community is so strong?
VX: I heard this somewhere—food is the easiest way to really understand someone's culture. I think there's so much history in food. I think nostalgia plays a big part of it, too. I know a guy who moved here, so he doesn't have the same connections to a place, and he'll have the food and be like, “Oh, it's regular Chinese food.” But for me, I grew up eating there for decades. So it feels more special to me, like this is nostalgic.
And then if I go somewhere else, and I try something similar, it’s like, “Oh, it tastes like that.” It's that same core memory that I feel attachment to. You can kind of remember the first time you had this, or maybe who you had it with, or maybe where you were when you had it.
Specifically, that Little Saigon video. That's my most popular video. It's crazy. It's like 150K views and the comments are just crazy. I'm not Vietnamese, but the comments about everyone's memories growing up in that area, trying all the food there—I think what I learned from doing this is that so many people have the same experience as me. I'm not special compared to anyone else but I think it's cool that people can relate to all this.
KM: In the comments on your videos, it's a bunch of local people from the Bay reminiscing about all these awesome experiences. And you’ve said before they sometimes recognize you on the street.
VX: Yeah, it’s happened a few times.
KM: Could you share one of your experiences in meeting your fans?
VX: The funniest one was pretty early on. This was the third taco tour video. I'm getting tacos with my friend. It's an area of Oakland just outside the flea market and there's no one there besides Hispanic folks, and we’re the only two Asian people there. But the owner of this al pastor place, he recognizes me at this point.
But from a distance I just see really old Asian people walking towards the stand. And my friend’s just joking, like “Oh, these guys are here because of your videos.” I didn't think anything of it. I ordered my food, we go sit down, we're eating. And then one of those older Asian guys comes up—it's like a communal sitting situation—and he asks, “Can we sit with you?” I’m like yeah, of course. And then he asks, “Are you Victor?” I say yeah, and he's like, “Oh, we just watched your video. That's why we're here.”
I’m like oh, seriously? And so we talk a little bit more, we chat. And they're just old Chinese people in their 70s. Like, what are you guys doing here? (laughs) That video just came out the day before. Dude, you just watched this and now you’re here? That’s crazy. That was a cool experience.
KM: On your Little Saigon video, I remember seeing the top comment talk about Banh Mi Ba Le, an iconic banh mi spot, having trouble finding food workers because of the increasing crime rate in Oakland. Despite the East Bay’s declining reputation, what do you think people get wrong about Oakland? What do you want them to know about it?
VX: Yeah, good question. You know, growing up in Oakland, I went through a lot of negative experiences, so I understand where that stuff was coming from. But I think—have you seen the movie The Last Black Man in San Francisco?
KM: Yes, I have.
VX: I think it's similar to that. There's that quote at the end, right? He says, “You're not allowed to hate something [unless you love it too].” I feel like a lot of people aren't even from here. They don't even know it. And even for me, I haven't lived in Oakland in almost 20 years now, but I'm still very active in that community. I still like to highlight it. There's good and bad everywhere. And I think we like to focus on the negative a lot. I'm not saying go there in the middle of the night, but there's beautiful areas, a ton of history and food, and a bunch of businesses that you guys should be out there supporting, right?
I don't fault people for thinking that way. Even for me, I've had a ton of bad experiences in Oakland. Why the hell do I go back? Because I grew up here. I have roots here. I just have so many memories here that are special to me. I think it's important to go back and check up on things you grew up on.
KM: There’s something almost kind of parental about that phrase, “check up on,” and the way you speak about your childhood and the places you grew up. You want to make sure they’re doing well, even if you don’t live there anymore.
VX: Yeah, I think I have a weird connection to this sense of nostalgia. I still make a detour and drive by my old house just to see how it's doing, see how that neighborhood is. Me and my cousins always joked about buying our grandparents’ house someday just to have it again. We all grew up there so it’s super special to us.
KM: I don't know if you've had this experience personally, but I imagine there are some people who might be frustrated that you're sharing these really great local spots. I get it; going viral can ruin a spot for the neighboring community when it becomes an Instagram tourist destination. What are your thoughts on gatekeeping mindsets like this? Is it a good thing? A bad thing?
VX: I have mixed thoughts. I kind of agree. But there are a lot of these small businesses that just deserve it, you know? Do they deserve to be super popular and super busy all the time? Yes, definitely, because they're so good.
But there’s one specific place that I'm kind of salty about. One of my favorite places, this Sonoran tortilla taco spot, she was serving out of her backyard for a while—I legit was going to her since the first day she set up—but she got shut down by the city because she went viral. Obviously, you can't serve food out of your backyard, blah blah blah.
I'm salty at this influencer for highlighting specific parts of those details that maybe she shouldn't have mentioned in a video that got millions of views. This is someone's patio in the backyard, it's not a restaurant—she legit said these things. Alright, I understand you want to be transparent to your fans but you also ruined it for everyone who wants to go there.
This person has hundreds of thousands of followers. I feel like you have a responsibility to understand that things you post might have an impact. Because you're highlighting these places, make sure you protect them, too. Don't just put this content out there and forget about them, which I feel a lot of people are doing.
Overall, I try not to be a gatekeeper. I love sharing my favorite spots with people. Anytime I post something, I try to tag them. When people ask me for an itinerary for somewhere I went, I’ll gladly send it to them.
You have a responsibility to understand that things you post might have an impact. Because you're highlighting these places, make sure you protect them, too.
KM: If you could take someone who thinks negatively of Oakland to one spot to change their mind, where would you take them?
VX: That’s so hard. But if I had to take someone, I would probably go back to my roots and take them to a Chinese place.
KM: Any Chinese place in particular?
VX: Yeah, I’m trying to think of which one (pauses). I want to say Gum Kuo. It's classic. I've literally been going there since I was a little baby. I can't say it's the best place in the world. There are probably better Chinese restaurants out there in the Bay. But in terms of nostalgia and the story, it’d be Gum Kuo.
I took one of my best friends who also grew up in Chinatown and she hadn't been there in a long time and then when we had it she was like, “This is so good.” The funny thing is, she took some food back to her boyfriend, and he's like, “This is okay.” (laughs). It’s hard to pick one place. It depends: do you care about the story behind it or do you just want good food?
KM: It’s funny you mention Gum Kuo, a place I’m really nostalgic for even though I’m not from the Bay. One time, I brought my Korean partner to Gum Kuo and she was like, “This place is not good.”
VX: That’s the thing (laughs). It sucks when you take someone somewhere and they’re like, “This isn’t that good.” If they’re Korean, take them to Moo Bong Ri. That’s a good one. Not everyone’s gonna like everything. But if we’re going to narrow it down to a spot, I’ll say Gum Kuo.
KM: Do you have any tips for creators who want to make the same kind of content you do?
VX: Just do it. Do it with intent. I don't want to say there always has to be a reason to do something, but I think there should be, ideally. Each episode, I’m thinking about what I’m trying to accomplish. You also can’t tell a story if you don’t plan things out. Before you even film anything or edit anything, just write things down, plan everything out, write a script. Know what you’re doing this for.
Also, if you want to create stuff, just use what you have. Don't buy fancy gear to do what you need to do. I shot everything with my phone. I bought a cheap little handheld tripod thing. I did splurge a little bit on the nice mic because audio matters a lot.
Finally, I think consistency played a huge part in the YouTube algorithm to help my videos surface on so many people’s feeds. Ten videos in 10 weeks was a grind, but it definitely helped with the initial exposure.
Overall, use what you have, make sure everything has an intent, be prepared, and be consistent.
Published on November 16, 2023
Words by Kelvin Mak
K.K. Mai is a writer and high school English teacher residing in California's Bay Area. When he's not furiously planning for the next day's lessons, he often finds himself stuck in Wikipedia rabbit holes, wandering around his neighborhood at night, and neurotically cycling through his memories before he sleeps. Sometimes he writes, too. Follow him on Substack or on Twitter at @radishgalaxy.