Phoenix restaurants feel the impact of TikTok star Keith Lee's visit | Phoenix New Times

TikTok star Keith Lee’s visit leaves lasting impact on Valley restaurants

Having Keith Lee visit was "like winning the lottery," says one Valley restaurant owner.
Juan Robles, co-owner of Phoenix taqueria Juanderful Tacos says getting a visit and review from TikTok influencer Keith Lee is "like winning the lottery."
Juan Robles, co-owner of Phoenix taqueria Juanderful Tacos says getting a visit and review from TikTok influencer Keith Lee is "like winning the lottery." Sara Crocker
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When Juan Robles learned that Mesa eatery Myungrang Hotdog had enticed TikTok food critic Keith Lee to visit with an email, he had only one thought: “My wife is going to kill me.”

Robles and his wife Evelyn Gomez have run Juanderful Tacos since 2021 – starting the traditional taqueria out of their backyard before serving from the parking lot of a shopping center on the northeast corner of Camelback Road and 37th Avenue and then moving into a brick-and-mortar space in that center in 2022.

They’ve also been avid followers of Lee, the former MMA fighter-turned-TikTok-food-influencer whose viral undercover reviews of mom-and-pop restaurants around the country have sparked celebrations and controversy.

“In the restaurant industry, having him come is like winning the lottery," Robles says.

When the couple learned Lee was planning a visit to Arizona, Gomez suggested Robles try to email him. Robles was skeptical Lee would ever see, let alone respond, to an email.

“I was a little bit incredulous about the whole situation,” he says. “I didn’t think it would be possible at all, so I didn't reach out to him.”

Robles’ was filled with regret when he saw the review of Myungrang Hotdog on Feb. 28, a day after Lee’s post went live. Realizing that an email broke through to the TikTok star, Robles quickly fired off a note to Lee in hopes it would help their case.

Ultimately, it didn’t matter. A few days later, while Gomez and Robles sat in church, they got an alert that Juanderful Tacos had been tagged by Lee. They watched the review from their seats with no sound and began to cry.

“I remember the pastor that was preaching looked over and was like, what is going on?” Robles says.

Lee’s review was glowing – and has been watched 3.4 million times so far. The couple went straight to the taqueria after church.

“It was already full of people,” Robles says.

That’s the blessing – and sometimes the curse – of what has been dubbed the Keith Lee Effect. In the weeks since Lee descended on the Valley in late February, posting reviews of eight spots along the way, restaurant and food truck owners have shared stories of that impact – be it adjusting on the fly to a deluge of new customers or fielding inquiries about franchising opportunities.
click to enlarge Republica Empanada in Mesa.
Keith Lee tried and rated five different flavors from Republica Empanada in Mesa.
Jackie Mercandetti

TikTok star sought ‘mom and pop spots’

When asking his more than 16 million followers for recommendations of where to visit in Arizona, Lee shared a preference for "mom and pop spots that have great food and great customer service but could use some marketing," popular spots voted on by locals, "restaurants from different backgrounds, different cultures and different ethnicities" and lastly, the most popular spots on DoorDash.

To stay undercover, Lee doesn’t dine in restaurants. Instead, his family members order online and he films his reviews in a car. In each post, he holds up the bounty he’s ordered, quickly quipping, “I got it, let’s try it,” before breaking down what he’ll be tasting and the cost for the order. Lee’s real-time reactions are recorded and he rates each item on a scale from one to 10.

Lee has built a following thanks to his genuine responses while taste-testing and paying it forward through generous tips and prepaying for customers who order after him.

At Republica Empanada in Mesa, the first place Lee reviewed on his visit, he left a $500 tip for the employees and $600 to go toward customer orders. Through its Instagram page, the restaurant shared videos of lines out the door and posts noting several days of selling out and experiencing “record sales.” The restaurant also closed for two days to give their staff some time off to rest.

Lee has also sparked ire from locals when he’s parachuted into a community, particularly after negative takes he has shared about the food scenes in Atlanta and San Francisco. When he has panned a restaurant, his army of followers have been known to post a deluge of negative reviews online and harass staff.

While in the Valley, Lee tasted a few bites that he didn’t love.
click to enlarge Wings and fries from Ace of Wingz.
Ace of Wingz is known for its unconventional flavors including wings tossed in hot cherry sauce.
Ace of Wingz

Even critical reviews led to 'overwhelmingly positive' impact

Alan Bell knows that Lee doesn’t like sweets, but the owner of the Scottsdale-based food truck Hanas AZ didn’t care.

“I love what he does… he moves with the spirit,” says Bell, who relocated from Portland, Oregon, to the Valley in September.

Bell began messaging and tagging Lee after he moved – and continued to do so, hoping it would entice the TikToker to visit his truck. Hanas serves wings, walking tacos – a bag of chips stuffed with toppings including ground beef, cheese and sour cream – and snowballs, a New Orleans rendition of shaved ice.

In Lee’s review of Hanas, he says that he received more messages from Bell than from any other food truck. While Lee liked Hanas’ walking taco, he said he “wasn’t the target audience” for Bell’s flavored pickles and snowballs.

“It just tastes like sugar ice,” Lee said in the video.

But, Lee’s wife, Ronni Lee, and his sister shared their enjoyment of the strawberry shortcake and sour lemonade snowballs, rating them with a seven.

“I was banking on her keeping me in the game,” Bell says of Ronni’s positive response, adding that he’s “so humbly appreciative” for the review.

The Phoenix eatery Ace of Wingz likewise received some criticism from Lee in his review. The influencer visited the wing shop after more than 15,000 people voted for it in a poll Lee posted.

Ace of Wingz is known for its unconventional flavors, such as pizza wings topped with tomato sauce, parmesan, pepperoni and mozzarella; elote wings with lime, tajin and cotija; and wings tossed in hot cherry sauce.

Although Lee complimented the “thinking outside the box” to come up with these flavors, he said, “I’m not a fan at all,” of a hot cherry sauced wing, rating it as a two. But, Lee enjoyed the restaurant’s more traditional lemon pepper wing, giving it a 7.5.

The restaurant responded to the review on Instagram.

“The facts that 15k plus people voted for that enjoy my food speaks volumes. Appreciate (Lee) for giving our restaurant a try and wish him nothing but success and happiness,” the post read.

Owner Abion Acoy says Lee's review was helpful and he was pleased that Lee liked the lemon pepper wings – one of Ace of Wingz’s best sellers.

“Watching Keith's reactions to our wings, even the critical comments, was a valuable learning experience for us. We appreciated his honesty and took his feedback constructively,” Acoy shared via email. “While we shared some of our thoughts on social media, we also understand that everyone has different tastes, and we're continuously striving to improve and innovate our offerings.”

The review of Ace of Wingz has been watched 15.9 million times and counting, more than any other restaurant review from Lee's Valley food tour. Acoy says despite the critiques, the effects of Lee's review have been “overwhelmingly positive.”

“Since his visit, we've seen a significant increase in foot traffic and online engagement, which has been a great boost for our business,” Acoy said.

click to enlarge Jewel's Bakery and Cafe general manager Reana Moreno and owner Julie Moreno
Jewel's Bakery and Cafe general manager Reanna Moreno-Blodgett and owner Julie Moreno were "screaming bloody murder" when they learned Keith Lee had reviewed the gluten-free restaurant.
Sara Crocker

Measuring the Keith Lee Effect

Some owners of restaurants that Lee featured are hopeful that the additional eyeballs will help accelerate growth plans.

Julie Moreno, owner of Jewel’s Bakery and Cafe, says that Lee’s visit to the gluten-free Phoenix eatery helped spotlight challenges people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance face when dining out. Plans were already in motion to begin franchising the restaurant under the name Whisk and Mingle, but Moreno says Lee’s review has raised more awareness of what they do.

“It’s kind of crazy how it hit at this time,” she says. “We’re going nationwide … Everything points to a big expansion to help meet the needs of the underserved gluten-free community.”

Moreno and other restaurant owners visited by Lee say they’ve had to scale up to meet the new demand in the weeks since his Phoenix food tour. For Jewel’s, that has meant hiring an additional staff member to help prep the restaurant’s pancake and waffle batters.

At Juanderful Tacos, after Lee’s review went live, Robles and his wife Gomez headed to their shop and prepped everything they could at the restaurant until 2 a.m. As a Mexican immigrant, Robles says the menu reflects his bicultural experience.

“While we have a lot of very traditional things, we’ve also invented some not-so-traditional things,” he says.

That means corn tortillas, salsas and agua frescas made daily. Tacos can be stuffed with chicken, steak, lengua or cabeza. But, Juanderful Tacos also offers cheesy tacos, burritos and quesadillas.
click to enlarge Asada tacos at Juanderful Tacos.
Asada tacos at Juanderful Tacos. Lee rated the steak tacos an 8.3 out of 10.
Sara Crocker

The Peoria residents stayed at Gomez’s sister’s house nearby and were up again at 6 a.m. Robles prayed people would show up. Then in one day, he says Juanderful Tacos sold 10 times more than normal.

“It was insane,” Robles says. “Just overnight we had to really get to work.”

As Robles and Gomez get ready to celebrate three years in business later this month, they’re thinking about adding a second location of Juanderful Tacos with a larger kitchen that would allow them to expand the menu.

“We’re just riding the wave,” Robles says.

Although traffic to the taqueria has moderated since those initial crazy days, Robles says the restaurant’s sales from March alone have outpaced his three-month sales average. In response, he has doubled his staff from six to 12, provided wage increases and is paying down credit card debt they’ve taken on for the business.

“We always thought about it as a dream – what if Keith Lee came to our shop?” Robles says. “Being on the other side of that, that we were the lucky ones that he came to, it’s insane… he basically blew us up overnight.”
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