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One Perfect Meal

Ordering right -- and wrong -- at the erratic Tien Fu

Restaurants are mysteriously unpredictable organisms. Take Tien Fu, an unusually pretty neighborhood Chinese place on West Alabama, between Shepherd and Kirby. Roll the dice once and you may come away convinced you've discovered a great, inexpensive staple to add to your Chinese restaurant rotation. Roll the dice a few days later, and you may find yourself apologetically explaining to the friends you've dragged along that the dishes you ordered last time were terrific -- honest.

Who knows why some restaurants hit the heights with certain dishes and slide into mediocrity on the rest? Everyone has a soft spot for a few places of the "don't-order-anything-but-the-such-and-such" variety, and I hereby confess to a soft spot for Tien Fu, even though I can hardly give it a blanket recommendation. Indeed, I had trouble believing my second meal here issued from the same kitchen that produced the first.

I was rooting for Tien Fu from the moment I walked in the door. In a world full of garish Chinese places, this long slot of a room is soothingly handsome -- even romantic -- with its laid-back grays and lacquered oxblood reds, its gorgeously patterned tables and its soft, intelligent lighting. Classical music murmurs over the sound system. Crisp vertical blinds solve that vexing strip-center bugaboo, the glary window-wall with gruesome parking-lot view. The two young, energetic proprietors exude warmth and enthusiasm. The pan-Chinese menu, while heavy on overly familiar standards, lists a couple of distinctive dishes and a few sauces that sound intriguing. And considering the lovely suroundings, the prices -- most of which hover around eight bucks -- are certainly right.

When the food is right, Tien Fu can compete with the best Chinese restaurants in town. Their walnut shrimp is a spectacular dish: its stir-fried shellfish firm and resilient; its walnuts toasty and barely candied; its glossy, deep-brown sauce a deft balancing act of ginger and salt and low-keyed chile warmth. All of its elements interact brilliantly. Best of all, perhaps, is the relief of getting a shrimp dish that is neither iodine-laden nor overcooked.

Add to these shrimp a generous plateful of spicy green beans, understated and gratifyingly chewy, their punctuation of salty ground pork and flecks of red chile offset by the merest whisper of sugar. No need to fear anyone's going to libel these vegetables and wind up in trouble with the Texas Legislature.

Further components of the ideal Tien Fu meal: Mandarin noodles, a very pleasant lo mein of the kitchen-sink, assorted-meats-and-vegetables genre; and a starter plate of dumplings that are mightily abetted by a brisk, gingery vinegar dip zapped with soy and red pepper. The noodle wrappers are on the stout side, which works fine when the dumplings are filled with robust ground pork and pan-fried potsticker style, so that they emerge with a browned, crusty bottom. It even works fine when they're filled with minced chicken and steamed. (Beware the steamed vegetable dumplings, however: the wrappers' thickness virtually stifles the over-minced, characterless stuffing.)

Here I must pause for a slightly perverse digression. If you are a closet devotee of crab Rangoon -- that bastardized, Americanized, hopelessly lowbrow appetizer of deep-fried won ton skins stuffed with profoundly un-Chinese cream cheese -- well, you've come to the right place. Tien Fu's version is light and crisp and scallion-spiked and more delicious than it has any right to be. Go ahead and compromise your credentials as a gastronome. You won't be sorry.

You may well be sorry if you order any of the restaurant's other fried dishes, those all-too-common mainstays of the American Chinese menu. On a recent evening two different chicken dishes struggled against overwhelming, inexpertly fried crusts -- and lost. Huge hillocks of Galaxy Chicken wore a deep-brown, sesame-seeded mantle and an unexciting, tomato-tinged hot-and-sour sauce; so strong was the impression of frying grease that we might as well have been eating tennis balls. Same went for the Imperial Chicken, smaller pieces of fowl in a lighter-colored crust that still managed to obliterate any hint of chickenness. Even an interesting-sounding "spicy pepper wine sauce" availed nothing, being sweet and thin-tasting and scarce.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a couple of shrimp dishes fared better. Stir-fried garlic shrimp among a thicket of crisp emerald broccoli twigs could not match the walnut shrimp's style, but its thin brown sauce was agreeable enough (although hardly the "hot and spicy" affair the menu promised). The Chef's Shrimp that sounded so promising, though, turned out to be rather weird: sauteed with cucumber and garlic in a rice vinegar and wine sauce, they looked wan and tasted wanner. The sauce that should have been so exuberant resembled translucent mucilage and seemed to cry out for some life-giving ingredient.

A couple of Tien Fu's other anomalies have disappeared from the menu, casualties of the relentless dumbing-down process to which so many restaurants subscribe. Gone are the salt-and-pepper pork chops; gone is a curious sounding ground beef dish attributed to the ancient Chinese emperors. Instead, one must make do with stuff everybody serves: moo shi pork in a competent if uninspired version, wrapped in pancakes a trifle on the stodgy side; or home-style bean curd imbued with earthy dried mushroom flavor, bristling with pan-fried tofu triangles a trifle on the rubbery side.

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