TikTok food critic Keith Lee arrives in Phoenix to review restaurants | Phoenix New Times

TikTok famous foodie Keith Lee starts his Phoenix restaurant reviews

The former MMA fighter with nearly 18 million followers dishes on local restaurants. Here's where he's already stopped in the Valley.
Keith Lee is bringing his social media restaurant reviews to Phoenix. He's asking followers for help.
Keith Lee is bringing his social media restaurant reviews to Phoenix. He's asking followers for help. Ethan Miller/Getty Images
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Editor's note: This story was updated on Feb. 28 to add Lee's second Phoenix review.

Former MMA fighter, TikTok star and self-proclaimed food critic Keith Lee has landed in Arizona.

In his reviews, Lee acquires takeout from local restaurants. He then eats in his car, filming his reactions and giving precise point ratings on a scale from 0 to 10 for each dish. This simple, yet effective, format has grown Lee a combined following of nearly 18 million on Instagram and TikTok. And along with that following comes influence — and controversy.

Positive reviews from Lee can result in restaurants seeing lines around the block of hungry customers wanting to try their food. This phenomenon has been dubbed the Keith Lee Effect.

Lee's negative reviews can hurt small businesses, especially when his fans pile on the negativity. They sometimes clash with local restaurant customers, who criticize Lee's method of visiting random cities for a few days and sharing opinions without much context.

click to enlarge SugarJam brunch plates.
Keith Lee posted a poll with four restaurant possibilities. The options included SugarJam The Southern Kitchen.
Tirion Boan

Where is Keith Lee going in Phoenix?

So far, it seems Lee's visit to Arizona is going well. On Feb. 21, he announced via Instagram and TikTok that he would soon visit the Grand Canyon State  — but didn't say when. He then asked his followers for recommendations for restaurants in four categories.

The restaurants should be "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.

On Monday, Lee posted a poll to his social media asking followers to vote on the popular restaurant that most represents Arizona's food scene. The options were: SugarJam, Latha, Brunch House and Ace of Wings.

click to enlarge Republica Empanada in Mesa.
Keith Lee tried and rated five different flavors from Republica Empanada in Mesa.
Jackie Mercandetti

Keith Lee’s reviews in metro Phoenix

On Monday night, Lee's first Arizona review dropped on TikTok. He visited Republica Empanada in Mesa. According to his video, Lee's wife was in a shoe store when a Republica Empanada employee saw her and recommended they visit the Mesa restaurant. She posed for a photo with the woman, who is later shown meeting Lee at the restaurant after he tries the food.

Lee tried and rated five empanadas on a scale of 0 to 10. He gave the Cubana an eight, the chicken and mushroom an 8.5  and the jalapeno popper flavor a four, docking points for the texture being "overly soft." Of the sweet options, Lee gave the Nutella banana an eight, and the Ruiz's Pieces, a riff on the classic peanut butter and chocolate candy, a one out of 10. Lee does preface this low rating with the fact he's not a huge fan of desserts.

Overall, he praised Republica Empanada's fresh oil, the crispy and flakey texture of the empanadas and was a fan of the salsa.

"If this place is slow, in my opinion, it shouldn't be," Lee said — words that may hint at what's to come for the small Mesa business. At the end of the video, Lee went inside the restaurant to find the woman who had recommended the eatery to his wife.

"We told her no promises, but it might get a little crazy tomorrow," he said. So far the video has 1.3 million views.

Lee then says he left a $500 tip for the employees and an extra $600 to pay for any customer orders that came in after them.

Then on Tuesday, Mesa restaurant Myungrang Hot Dog posted excitedly to its Instagram page that "something crazy happened." Lee had stopped by.

"We are beyond thankful," the post said. "Many of you mentioned us in his recent post and he actually came! He is such an amazing guy. He has gifted us with something we will soon share with you!!"

Late Tuesday night, Lee's second review dropped. He visited the Mesa restaurant and got the variety pack of five different corn dogs. Some are filled with cheese, others more closely resemble a traditional corn dog. Lee generally liked the offerings, although he found them lacking in flavor and in need of the provided sauces. At the end of the video, he goes into the restaurant to meet the owner and leaves $2,500 to cover incoming customers' orders.

Myungrang Hot Dog is a massive chain with stores all over the world. The two Valley locations, in Mesa and Glendale, are operated by local franchisees.

Bracing for impact

So far, Lee's visit to the Valley seems to be bringing positivity. But that's not always the case when he rolls into town.

When he visited San Francisco, chaos ensued. After local restaurants and media alike braced for Lee's visit and the resulting reviews, he cut his trip short and left after three days. He shared that he'd suffered a severe allergic reaction, and also alluded to a general lack of love for the Bay area's internationally acclaimed dining scene. He has also been vocal about his dislike of Atlanta's food scene, which didn't sit well with locals.

When news media sends out-of-town reporters to cover local stories, it's called parachute journalism and often, national reporters miss important context on a local story. The far-reaching nature of social media stardom has made parachute influencing a thing, too.

However, as newsrooms continue to shrink across the U.S. and the number of traditional food critics dwindles, perhaps Lee represents a new sort of food critic.

In Phoenix, food influencers abound yet few traditional food critics remain. The position is currently unfilled at the state's largest publication, the Arizona Republic. At Phoenix New Times, we are lucky to have the insightful opinions of a freelance food critic, who writes one thoroughly researched, context-heavy review each month. But Dominic Armato's definition of food critic certainly differs from Lee's.

Lee hasn't announced his plans for the rest of his visit to the Valley. However, don't expect to see him roll up to the counter at your favorite eatery. Lee most often uses family members to place his orders so he doesn't receive special treatment and to maintain his credibility. However, if the Republica Empanada shoe store story is any indication, his wife is becoming equally recognizable.

Whether the former MMA fighter's Phoenix visit will result in the Keith Lee Effect or a messy food fight for Valley eateries remains to be seen. 
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