Tien Yuen

1612 16th St. NW

234-1444

Hours: 5 to 11 p.m. Thursday through Tuesday.

Prices: Appetizers 85 cents to $3.85, entrees $4.85 to $8.95.

Cards: None accepted.

Washington is full of restaurants -- Mel's, Duke's, Germaine's and Suzanne's to mention a few -- named for the people who run them, men and women whose presence can contribute as much to the enjoyment of a meal as the food itself.

Tien Yuen isn't named for its owner, Violet Fan, but it probably should be. As far as habitues are concerned, this Chinese charmer is known simply and affectionately as "Violet's."

And why not? Fan is a one-woman show, a diminutive dynamo of a hostess who greets, seats and then feeds you with the enthusiasm of a good neighbor. If you haven't been in to see her lately, she's likely to ring you up; on particularly slow nights, regulars even report being summoned to dinner, compliments of Fan.

More often than not, patrons get a stomachful of food and an earful of gossip, both of which are dished out with equal relish. Tea is offered practically before you sit down, and water flows a la Niagara Falls throughout dinner.

So you start off liking the place even before you've had a morsel of food.

By and large, the food is decent, moderately priced Chinese fare with few surprises. Among the appetizers, I've sampled two fine soups, a clear, vegetable-laden san-shien broth, and a beefy and filling hot-and-sour concoction. Skip the crackery, flavorless won tons in favor of the meatier egg rolls, or better yet, opt for the savory, crisp-fried dumplings stuffed with a ginger-spiked filling of pork.

The entrees are more of a mixed bag. The best part of the sweet and sour shrimp were the batter-fried shrimp; the sauce was too sweet and the accompanying chunks of onions tasted undercooked and strongly raw. Another time, the sweet and sour beef was neither. (A more pleasant meat encounter was the Mongolian beef, rounded out with scallions and bamboo shoots.) The noodle dish known as lo mein has been on the dry side (though abundantly garnished) and the single curry dish on the menu -- teaming shrimp with diced, packaged-tasting vegetables -- smelled disagreeably musty when it was brought to the table.

One of the house specials, crispy caramel beef, is a house favorite, I'm told. This despite the near carbonization of the meat, and a sweet, dark glaze of a sauce that rendered this dish the textural equivalent of overdone caramel corn.

Perhaps the best dish on the menu, the one Violet herself will suggest you try, is the spicy sesame chicken. Don't miss it. The velvety nuggets of chicken -- suspended in a delicate batter, rolled in sesame seeds and served with a distinctive glaze redolent of ginger and soy sauce -- are addictive.

The dining room, bathed in blood-red lacquer and modestly accented with a few oriental prints and mirrors, is no more than 10 tables -- when several small parties showed up at the same time recently, it looked like a stampede.

Yes, it's small. But Tien Yuen is perhaps prettier than it needs to be, dressed up as it is with table linens, cloth napkins and fanciful lanterns overhead. The tinny background music, wafting like kitchen aromas through the small space, seems to suit this whimsical little hole in the wall.

Always polite, Violet is not above some slapdash service on busy nights. When we asked to have our leftovers wrapped one night, she proceeded to scrape our plates into a single carryout container -- one dish atop another, so that the various sauces bled into one another. That she did it at the table made it even less appealing. Fortunately, that proved to be the exception rather than the rule over the course of my three visits.

At any rate, a strong and likable personality goes a long way toward forgiving the flaws at "Violet's." And by sticking with such delicious supports as the fried dumplings and the spicy sesame chicken, the success of the evening is practically assured.

Tom Sietsema is on the staff of The Washington Post Food section.