"Some people think my review process is flawed," Edmonds' Hans Lienesch confesses on his blog, Ramen Rater, where the unemployed 36-year-old posts his quantified impressions of instant noodles.
Lienesch's methodology has come under increased online scrutiny since The Weekly Herald ran a front-page feature on his ramen project this month. Like many other amateur food bloggers, Lienesch has forged his own star system to make sense of the 400-plus noodles he's sampled. While he hasn't attempted to assign specific points to flavor, texture, or presentation--an approach popular with many self-appointed chicken-wing, burger, and pizza graders--he has a clear sense of the difference between zero-star ramen ("Tastes literally like crap," he writes) and five-star ramen ("Requires me to call someone up and tell them how amazingly wonderful these noodles are.")
Still, his categories strike some fellow ramen fans as inexact, or--worse still--unfair.
"A couple of people had a fit about it," Lienesch says, recalling when he tagged a popular Korean brand with 2.5 stars. "Hey, it's my opinion."
Bloggers aren't the only food writers who have to contend with star gripes: Restaurant critics at newspapers which employ star systems are frequently called upon to reconcile their reviews with star assignments. But for niche bloggers who offer "reviews you can use" in narrow categories, the hows and whys of assessment are especially important.
My friend Daniel Vaughn has compiled reviews of more than 400 Texas barbecue joints on his blog, Full Custom Gospel BBQ. Vaughn uses a strict six-star system (unlike Lienesch, he doesn't venture into decimal points). He awards one star to a joint that readers shouldn't bother visiting, and saves six stars for consistently spectacular joints that should make readers "reconsider their honeymoon destination." Fans of Texas barbecue won't be surprised to learn Austin's Franklin Barbecue is the sole recipient of a six-star rating.
"I primarily rate the brisket and ribs, so if both are in the great category, then it gets five stars," Vaughn explains by e-mail. "One of the meats must be exceptional to get a four-star rating no matter the quality of the sides. Meat is king. Sauce is not considered."
Sides and ambience aren't star-worthy on their own, but, Vaughn adds, "It can help push a rating up or down if I'm on the fence. Do you get buttered Texas toast, or stale white bread? Did those pintos come straight from the can, or are the beans a special recipe that's cooked in the smoker?"
Translating a subjective experience into stars is tricky, whether the critic is tackling film, music, or dried Asian noodles. Lienesch reports his star system has evolved as he's eaten more ramen. He was initially reluctant to wade into multiple-star territory, hoping he'd find even better noodles deserving of the extra stars. "My palate's getting smarter," Lienesch says. "These days, if I like it, I'm giving it higher marks."
Vaughn's adjusted his expectations instead of his star ratings. "Now that I've been at this for a while, I know that most places are going to be two or three stars, but I go into every situation hoping for the best," he writes.
Lienesch says he plans to continue rating noodles according to his current system. "This is for the long haul," he says. "Luckily, I like noodles."