By Noah Haglund
The Daily Herald
EVERETT, Wash. (AP) — Some food critics go for haute cuisine.
Hans Lienesch goes for the instant kind — and a very particular one at that.
The unemployed Edmonds transplant has carved out an online niche as a prolific sampler of packaged Asian noodles, the kind you cook by adding boiling water and little else.
Online, Lienesch is known as the Ramen Rater. By this week, he will have reviewed 407 varieties of packaged noodles from nearly every country in east Asia.
His culinary pedigree? “I like to eat,” the 36-year-old said this week, patting his belly.
Many people know about ramen noodles from the Top Ramen brand, made by Japan’s Nissin Foods.
The same goes for Lienesch. As a kid growing up in Anacortes in the 1980s, he discovered another kind of ramen made by Nissin called Roasted Ramen, which he liked better than Top Ramen. Then it disappeared from store shelves.
That sent his family on a quest to the Uwajimaya supermarket in Seattle. There, he found an exact equivalent of his beloved Roasted Ramen — and a whole spectrum of instant noodles he never knew existed.
“I started a website in 2002 to keep track of what I tried, see if I liked it or not,” Lienesch said. A diet forced him to take a break from the high-sodium, high-fat noodles. He turned to reviewing hot sauces. After reaching about 250 hot sauce reviews, he grew bored and stopped.
Eventually, he kicked the diet and, about a year ago, started reviewing ramen again.
Helping feed the habit was his recent move to a stretch of Highway 99 in Edmonds dotted with restaurants, groceries, and other businesses from around the globe. You might call it the Highway of Babel.
Cheap rents, not the neighborhood’s promise for exotic ramen variations, however, were what drew Lienesch there. “It ended up being a super lucky spot,” he said.
These days, most people in the Puget Sound area need not venture far to find a full-fledged supermarket catering to Asian palates with entire aisles dedicated to instant noodles.
Uwajimaya, headquartered in Seattle, has four retail stores in the Northwest and traces its roots to a business that Yawatahama, Japan, native Fujimatsu Moriguchi began in Tacoma in 1928. H Mart, an Asian supermarket chain that started in Queens, N.Y., in 1982, has a Lynnwood branch near the Alderwood mall. A short walk from Lienesch’s apartment is 99 Ranch Market, another Asian supermarket chain, which began in Southern California in 1984.
On Tuesday, the Ramen Rater stalked an aisle at 99 Ranch that rivaled a fireworks stand for its explosion of color.
Rows of bright packages advertised noodle flavors as diverse as kimchi, Chinese soy bean, and tom yum soup. Most cost a buck or less.
“I’ve shopped this place pretty well,” Lienesch said. “I don’t just review the stuff that looks like it’s going to be good.”
Even with so many offerings, Lienesch said it’s getting tricky to find untested packages. This turned out to be a lucky day, though, when Lienesch stumbled on something new: prawn-flavored noodles from Malaysia. He excitedly called it an “uber score.”
Back at the apartment that Lienesch shares with his fiancee Christine and pugs Daisy and Otis, he broke into true Ramen Rater form. It’s something Lienesch goes about with complete lack of pretension. He’s never been to Asia. Neither he nor his fiancee have any ties to the region. He sheepishly admits that he doesn’t use chopsticks.
“It’s really embarrassing, too,” he said.
His review technique started by taking photos of the unopened, unrated package on his computer desk. Then he tore open the wrapping to snap more shots of the spice and sauce packets inside.
“I like to take pictures before, after, and during,” he said. He next shuffled over to the stovetop for a few minutes of heavy boiling during which he pulled out the tangled mass with a fork to inspect it through his dark-framed glasses.
When the noodles looked ready, he poured them back into the spice bowl and did another photo shoot of the steamy, chili-flecked soup. Within the hour, these and other pictures would appear online on the Ramen Rater blog.
Finally, the time had come to dig in — with a fork — and with a chaser of Mello Yello soft drink from a 2-liter bottle. “It’s not bad,” he said. “It’s got a little bit of spiciness to it, a little bit of shrimp-pastiness, a little bit of lemon.”
The average review — no surprise — falls in the middle of his 1-to-5 scale.
Tuesday’s noodles rated a 3.25. To his online review No. 405, Lienesch attached a Malaysian-language commercial he found on YouTube from the company that made the noodles. Also, to keep things interesting, he appended an unrelated YouTube video about a UFO sighting in Canada.
The site, www.ramenrater.com, has received as many as 6,700 visitors in a day, he said. It carries no advertising.
Lienesch said he wouldn’t mind having a sponsor, though he also likes the independence.
Sometimes, people get offended by his reviews. He doesn’t see why. “I’m, like, sometimes it’s just my mood,” he said. “It’s just my opinion. It’s not something set in holy stone or anything.”
He keeps a Top 10 list, headed up by a package of Indonesian curly noodles that he awarded five stars. He’s given out zero stars before, to a brand that to him tasted like “rat-dropping stew.”
It turns out that the Chinese lettering on the ornate, colorful packaging advertised “fat intestine” flavor. ♦