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This issue of Desert Companion includes a travel guide to mountain towns — where to stay, eat, and play, and what to see in five high-elevation, low-stress destinations within a day’s drive (or less!) of Las Vegas. Bonus: an adapted excerpt from the forthcoming book Chasing Giants: In Search of the World’s Largest Freshwater Fish.

The Keith Lee Effect

A tongue bursts through a piece of paper while hands press like buttons
Ryan Vellinga

Will social media kill the restaurant star?

The TikTok video zooms in on Keith Lee’s face as he begins his review of a burger and fries from the Southern Taste Seafood truck near Flamingo Road and Bruce Street. Lee had come across the patron-less place while riding his bike the night before, in mid-January. “I’d never seen this food truck before — the foodie in me got interested immediately,” he says.

The former MMA fighter wears a deadpan expression as he relays the story of his encounter with Gary Shanks, Southern Taste’s owner, backing up critical parts with snippets of phone video. Lee had started to decline to order from the food truck because of a shellfish allergy, but Shanks asked him to come back the next day, when he’d make something with new utensils and oil.

At this point, Shanks has no idea that Lee is a food reviewer with more than 11 million followers. As commenter @ebethisme says, “He has no clue what wave is about to hit his food truck.”

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So, Lee returns the following day at noon. “Again, empty,” he says in the video. Shanks keeps his word and makes Lee a shellfish-free burger to go, which Lee ranks at 8.9 out of 10. Southern Seafood has since seen a 900 percent increase in sales.

During the video, Lee also tells how he paid Shanks $450 for the meal using fan gift donations he’d received during a previous livestream of a charity food distribution event. He plays the food truck owner’s stunned reaction to the huge payment and ends the video with, “This is why I love doing what I do.” The day after the video is posted, viewers donated $30,000 more to Shanks.

Lee started his channel in 2020, posting meals cooked for his family and reviewing takeout. Then in 2021, after losing two fights in a row, he was released from his six-figure contract fighting with Bellator MMA. Full-time content creation became the way Lee provided for his family. His appeal is understandable, and his viewers’ trust is palpable. He doesn’t seem to have anything to shill. He pays for his food and gets it to go. It’s hard to suspect grift from a man seated in his preschooler’s PAW Patrol chair.

This year, Lee has appeared on “Good Morning America,” “Inside Edition,” and the popular YouTube series “People vs Food.” This past February, during TikTok’s inaugural Visionary Voices, Lee was honored as an “industry disruptor.” (He didn’t respond to Desert Companion’s interview requests.)What does it mean to disrupt a sector that’s one of a city’s main economic drivers? As a rising dining destination, how should Las Vegas process the role of someone like Lee?

Two names top the results of an internet search for “Las Vegas food critics”: Keith Lee and (frequent Nevada Public Radio contributor) John Curtas. Traditionally, food critics such as Curtas have been seen as trained epicureans who do more than visit a restaurant once. They eat, drink, sleep, and breathe food. They keep us up to date with trends and emerging talents. They notice subtle menu changes that point to what’s unfolding in the zeitgeist. Consider how restaurants started offering comfort foods in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Traditional critics reminded us that in times of stress we need the feel-good neurotransmitters triggered by Mom’s re-created meatloaf.

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Food criticism is not always about taste. It takes into account a restaurant’s menu quality and atmosphere and incorporates the critic’s regional expertise. When Curtas says the Strip “is a big yawn,” as he recently did on KNPR’s State of Nevada, I believe him. Why? He’s seen it all and knows when casinos are rehashing played-out concepts.

Still, the field was rife for disruption. Traditional critics can be haute cuisine sycophants or heartless, picky eaters who don’t understand the intensity of a service job. Hence, their portrayals as snobs in The Menu, Ratatouille, and other films, as well as the success of podcasters such as (former Nevada Public Radio producer) Lorraine Blanco Moss, who worked in kitchens before launching Two Sharp Chefs and a Microphone. Full-time professional critics are rare in a field where anyone can post a Yelp review and media companies have reduced or eliminated their restaurant review budgets.

Of course, amateur criticism has its own problems. As a former chef, who went to culinary school in my 20s, I know that no matter how much we connect on apps, it’s hard to give sound reviews to food that’s traveled. And despite their charm, influencers such as Lee often have little to no relevant background education or training. Why should I trust their evaluation?

Viewers feel happy when they see Lee use his platform to elevate a struggling restaurant. His poker face — a result of his social anxiety — adds to the surprise when the video ends, and Lee says the restaurant is making money and hiring staff. Yet, the audience is spared the growing pains that happen after a viral review. How does a small business with a kitchen and staff accustomed to a few covers a day prepare for around-the-block lines? Lee’s viral boost doesn’t help restaurants get into a rhythm, or sort out supply and staffing issues.

And a bad Lee review can be a disaster. A negative review of the food and service at The Pepper Club’s happy hour caused Lee’s followers to harass and threaten a teenage hostess there. The restaurant suffered from hundreds of negative reviews. Lee tried to mitigate the damage by tipping the hostess generously and asking followers to stop the hate. But the damage was already done. What is the way forward after a vindictive online mob destroys a restaurant’s reputation?

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The essential debate about criticism isn’t new, though it’s shifted to new platforms. It would be nice if the remaining restaurant critics who do their job well didn’t have to compete with influencers and user-generated reviews. But “disruptive” amateurs such as Lee clue followers in on small neighborhood restaurants — a useful benefit in our city of siloed, master-planned communities.

Perhaps most importantly, critics haven’t always given their audiences a range of cuisines and price points that’s as diverse as the population they’re speaking to. If they could take this page from Lee’s playbook, and merge it with their own form of credibility, then we followers would get all the expertise, and all the fun.