1612 16th St. NW. 234-1444.
Hours: Lunch, Mondays through Fridays, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner, Sundays through Thursdays, 3 to 10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays, 5 to 10:30 p.m.
Atmosphere: Homelike concern.
Price range: $5 to $7.50.
Credit cards: No credit cards or personal checks accepted.
Special features: One step up. Narrow entrance and limited table spacing. No highchairs or booster seats. Street parking. Restrooms upstairs. Carryout.
Tien Yuen forms a small commercial pocket hidden among condos and trees and almost unnoticeable from 16th Street. This 30-seat Chinese restaurant seems to rise above its small size and create food with a personal touch.
For a little more than two years Violet Fan has been hostess, waitress, barmaid and charge' d'affaires of this pleasant little restaurant. Aided only by a kitchen assistant, she gives almost a one-woman production.
Tables are set with cloths and linen napkins. Except for overly large bottles of soy sauce, condiments come and go as needed to prevent overcrowding of the tabletop. Everything is neat and tidy: You are, after all, in Fan's domain.
Mirrors line one wall, and a stereo spins relaxed tunes throughout the room. As night falls, the room lights are dimmed; candles are lit and carried to tables. The setting in many ways duplicates a private home, where there is a definite warmth between hostess and diner.
The menu is limited to a few choices in each category, but our broad sampling uncovered tastes we seldom have found in larger, more commercial establishments. Dishes are wholesome and of good quality rather than fancy.
The egg roll wrappers and won-ton covers are rolled fresh daily. Soups taste as if they're prepared individually.
As in many similar small establishments, properly timing courses in Tien Yuen is often difficult. We waited many long, hungry moments before the first soup arrived and then waited a considerable time for the dinners.
If you expect water glasses to be refilled immediately or teapots to be ready upon your entrance, you'll certainly be disappointed.
The egg drop soup (65 cents) was hot and hearty, made with a thick, chicken-soup-yellow stock.
Instead of the more common hot and sour soup ($2.40 for two), we chose san shien ($2.70 for two). If this soup were an indication of things to come, we were content to wait: it was a delicious combination of meat, chicken, shrimp and vegetables.
After watching everyone in the room receive egg rolls, we amended our order to include the appetizers and advised Fan that they could arrive at any point. The nongreasy, bulging wrappers were filled with an abundance of cabbage, but a mere sprinkling of typical tastes.
The mu shi beef ($5.95) with additional pancakes arrived first. Good-sized slices of beef and a variety of vegetables were available for rolling.
The chicken with peanuts ($5.05) was prepared mild for the children also to enjoy. Though each restaurant prepares this dish differently, Tien Yuen's version not only has peanuts on top but its sauce also tastes nutty.
The tsao san shien ($6.50) deserved highest honors. Sliced tenderloin and chicken breasts, medium shrimp and quickly stir-fried broccoli flowerets were complemented by mushrooms and bamboo shoots.
Fortune cookies made our dessert decision making simple. The bill--$28.90, including drinks, tax and tip--was a fortune we all could swallow.