What makes a mixed martial artist qualified to be a food critic? That’s the question many have lobbed at Keith Lee, a Las Vegas–based TikTok creator with 15.3 million followers who reviews takeout orders from restaurants around the country.

After a controversial tour of Atlanta in October that ruffled the feathers of local restaurateurs and celebrities alike, Lee visited Houston after Thanksgiving, leaving the city with an anxious buzz. Training and credentials aside, Lee’s good reviews have been known to elevate a restaurant’s popularity. It’s what some call the Keith Lee effect.

Lee, 27, first began using TikTok in 2020 to combat social anxiety, then started posting restaurant reviews in 2021. He and his family mostly visit Black-owned restaurants, soliciting suggestions for mom-and-pop places that have good food but could use help reaching larger audiences, as well as for more well-known establishments. His family (usually his wife, Ronni) does the ordering for him, either putting the call on speakerphone or reporting back on how they were treated so Lee can get a sense of the customer service. His videos are recorded in a car or, occasionally, a hotel room, to avoid any recognition or special treatment. He then rates the food on a ten-point scale, occasionally including his family members’ scores as well.

When Lee rates a small restaurant or food truck highly, it provides the marketing boost some of them desperately need, as Lee’s followers will flock to try the food themselves. Lee has repeatedly stated that he never asks for or receives anything from businesses in exchange for his reviews; he simply goes where people have recommended and gives his honest opinion. He wants to have the experience an average person would have (though he sometimes tips a few thousand dollars for good service).

His visit to Atlanta several weeks ago showed the other side of the Keith Lee effect. At his first stop, Atlanta Breakfast Club, Lee didn’t seem particularly impressed with the food, and he diplomatically described the customer service as “interesting” due to the restaurant’s “unique” rules. From there, it was mostly downhill. Lee’s “reviews” of the Real Milk & Honey and Old Lady Gang consisted of him sitting empty-handed in his car due to issues such as the inability to call in orders, long wait times, and unequal service.

Those reviews were so controversial that the Real Milk & Honey, which initially dismissed Lee’s critiques in a now-deleted video, has since apologized and promised to take “internal corrective actions.” In order to be transparent, Lee posted three follow-up videos about his Atlanta trip, explaining his methodology and responding to former NFL star Ochocinco, who accused him of attacking Black-owned restaurants. His Atlanta visit shook the table so much, Lee intimated he was on the verge of ending his food tours.

But his tour of Houston in late November seemingly brought him back from the brink.

His first stops, at Stick Talk, a Cajun-hibachi restaurant with locations in Midtown and the Galleria area, and Butter Funk Kitchen, which serves Southern comfort food in Southeast Houston, were fair and positive. But by the time Lee made his way to the Breakfast Klub, a popular spot in Midtown, he sounded like was ready to move to Houston. There was a slight hiccup when his family called in the order, but as soon as he took his first bite of the restaurant’s chicken, Lee was sold. He’s giggly and downright giddy in the video. After sampling the pancakes and cheese grits, he’s elated.

https://www.tiktok.com/@keith_lee125/video/7306290763636296990?lang=en
Keith Lee’s review of Breakfast Klub

“This food? Immaculate,” Lee states. “I’ll mess around and come back to Houston just for that,” he adds with a laugh. Outstanding experiences at places like the Puddery dessert shop, in Pearland (one bite into its Oreo croissant waffle had Lee declaring, “I’m sold. I love Houston.”); the Better Box, an Asian fusion food truck in northwest Houston; and Mezza Grille, a Mediterranean restaurant near the Galleria, had Lee ranking Houston as one of his top food cities, alongside New Orleans. Whereas Atlanta was a slog of pedantic rules, Houston seemed to be a trip full of culinary delights.

After following his reviews of Houston restaurants, I see Lee’s appeal because of his everyman status. Although Lee states that his years as a professional mixed martial artist exposed him to international cuisine, he readily admits he’s just an average foodie. “I think one of the main reasons of why we’re here is because I’m relatable,” Lee says in a video. “I’m a customer like everybody else.”

Seeing his impact on smaller businesses reminds me of the internet’s potential power for good. Food criticism is no longer just for those with culinary or journalism backgrounds, but something anybody with a front-facing phone camera can do. Lee’s slightly eccentric video edits and unwavering politeness are endearing, but what sets him apart from other influencers is his transparency with his audience and his commitment to engaging with restaurants ethically. He’s gained his prestige because people trust him to be honest with his opinions.

Watching Lee enjoy eating his way through Houston is a delight and a relief. It seems to confirm what every Texan knows: Houston is a culinary destination, not just for professional food critics, but for regular people. Even before Lee’s tour of Houston ended, the restaurants he visited were already feeling his effect. Lines of new patrons wrapped around the buildings of the restaurants after each new video. The next stop on his tour is New York City, but I’d like to see Lee return to Texas and give us his takes on Austin and Dallas.