Open daily, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. AE, BA, MC. Reservations.

Open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 10 p.m.

AE, BA. Reservations.

SOMETHING WAS UP, I figured, when Rockville Mall started showing Chinese language films on weekends. Even Chinatown doesn't have movies. So I headed for Rockville to investigate further. After all, what would a Chinese movie be without good Chinese food nearby?

First stop, Hunan Garden. Midday Sunday, when the Chinese really know how to eat well. As unnamed sources had revealed, dim sum runners were operating at full speed at the Hunan Garden. We tried to look inconspicuous, but since everyone else in the restaurant was Chinese, our cover was shaky.

Everyone was eating little meat-and-seafood-filled pastries. Known to assume several aliases, from "dim-sum" to "Chinese dumplings," these parties travel in groups, two to eight to a plate, and have infiltrated Chinese resturants all over town. But these were no ordinary dim sum. They were Shanghai style, which means that there were varieties never spotted before in this jurisdiction, and they had class. The ones to keep an eye on are "small steamer buns," recognized by the twist at the top of the round, noodle-wrapped dumpling. The meat filling oozed juices which require care not to spill as you bite into them. The hot seller, though, and I could understand why, was flaky little sesame-coated scallion puffs, with a flavor of chicken fat that made one wonder about Jewish ancestry. You might go slow on some of the others. Noodles the shape of tongue depressors - known as rice flour cakes - are thicker than some may like, and they are sauced with more greasy residue than is considered discreet. But they keep good company, being stir-fried with black mushrooms, silvers of pork, cabbage and bamboo shoots. And one detects faint hints of pepper and vinegar, and intimate acquaintance with ginger. Hacked Chinese cabbages if served cold tastes hot from its abundance of hot peppers. If you're into heat that explodes at the back of your tongue, there are other cold dishes worth ordering: pale slices of pork in a white sauce which isn't much more than pureed garlic. For less heat, try home-smoked chicken or fish, chewy slices with a strong smoky flavor and undertones of anise. And even though Mandarin wonton soup was wan, its wontons were delicately wrapped and stuffed appealing to Americans' eyes than palates, tending towards the heavy, sticky and sweet. But the layer cake on Hunan Garden's dim sum menu is neither supersweet nor gummy, cut into diamond shapes, it is constructed of many paper-thin layers interspersed with chopped dried plums, drenched in a light sugar syrup. Surprisingly, the flavor is reminiscent of apple strudel, though the texture is more like crepes.

The operation was obviously under strict control from the [WORD ILLEGIBLE]. Before we had cooled our heels, a pot of tea appeared, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] with it a waiter who was willing to talk and give us clues [WORD ILLEGIBLE] to what to order. It all matched - the well-trained chefs, the well-trained waiters. And with plates of dim sum at $1 up to $2.50 for family-size portions, we could investigate in [WORD ILLEGIBLE], with little danger to our cash flow. The only mystery [WORD ILLEGIBLE] was what is known in my business as the decor. Spanish cloths, white stucco - and steakhouse style, the place obviously started as something else altogether. And the table of magazines near the door made me wonder.

But our work was only starting. We next investigated unprecedented rumors of a restaurant across the street from Hunan Garden which serves dim sum every day. All day. Sure enough, Hang Chow has fourteen kinds - at $1 to $1.20 for two to four pieces, competitive with its neighbor - and they are available every day. In fact, there may be signs of a price war, with Hang Chow offering two-course lunches at $2, three-course dinners from $2.50. No funny stuff with the decor here, it is strictly Chinese modern, with enough red lacquered columns, gold-leafed wooden ceiling panels, and pagoda effects to leave no doubt of its origins. You have to step carefully among Hang Chow's dim sum list, because some - har gow, shiu mai, and the breadlike bows - taste as if they had passed their pull dates. Fried dumplings are stars among these dim sum, though they may not be the most popular because they tend to be starchy and chewy, with unexpected sweet undertones. But I'd turn in my calorie chart for a taro root deep-fried doughnut, crispy and flaky on the outside, chewy inside, with a hidden burst of chopped meat and mushrooms. Turnip cakes, too, are crusty, Fragrant, starch-sweet, with bits of meat dotted throughout. Rice flour rolls are rarely found in this region, maybe because, though they look like manicotti, they have a gummy texture; but their shrimp filling and sprinkling of soy sauce redeem them.And for dessert, barely sweet water chestnut cakes may remind you of war Jell-O, but grow on you.

Investigating further than dim sum led me to uncover some dinners I wouldn't have wanted to miss. Hang Chow has dishes rare in Washington - Portuguese-style chicken and beef from Macao, chicken braised in milk from Hong Kong, Sadae beef from Singapore, curries, beef with egg sauce. Start with bean curd soup, a dense mixture of shrimp, chicken egg, ground pork, mushrooms, carrots and bean curd cubes in a sesame-scented chicken broth. Continue to chicken in milk, the white meat fried in a light, crisp egg batter, smothered in julienned bok choy aand an ivory-colored sauce faintly flavored with coconut. Sadae beef contrasts by its deep brown color and hot curry flavor. Bean curd fanciers should sample Hang Chow's eight-precious bean curd, the creamy curds fried and mixed with meats and vegetables in a velvety saucewith undertones of pepper and vinegar. And if the lobster is fresher than our was, the steamed version would be exciting, in an airy custard redolent of garlic, ginger, scallions and black beans. Standard dishes here a bit below my standards; the moo shi pork, for instance, was bland and gravy-drenched, the hot appetizers indifferent. But adventure costs so little at Hang Chow, main dishes averaging $4 to $5, even Polynesian drinks - rather good ones - averaging $1.25.

Consistency is higher at Hunan Garden, though I wish the chef would cut down on the oil and the msg. The dinner menu has an attractive variety of dishes - seven cold and seven hot appetizers, for a start - emphasizing Hunan and Szechuan fire; and here, too, they average $4 to $5.

Soups are not its strong suit, but the seaweed in chicken broth is pleasant. The shrimp toast here is unusally delicious, its filling light and fluffy, as if it had been whipped. Certainly order some of the cold appetizers - smoked chicken, hacked cabbage - which appear also on the dim sum menu. After that it is hard to go wrong. Hunan beef is tender and cooked rare, bedded on barely cooked spinach nd lightly sauced with soy, hot peppers and innumerable mysteries. A delicate foil for its heat is emerald shrimp, lightly bound with clouds of whipped egg white, highlighting the pure tastes of shrimp and broccoli with bits of ham and shreds of carrot. More robust is Hunan smoked pork, the meat very smoky nad obviously related to Smithfield, in a garlicky, peppery light brown sauce sweetened by nearly crisp sauteed leeks. Hotter but not quite as extraordinary are pork with hot garlic and dry sauteed string beans. On the gentle side, five-flavored shrimp is appealingly crisp, subtle and slightly sweet. These had to be a disappointment or two to contrast with these culinary highs; and so, the bathtub-size Polynesian drinks were dreadful, and the Peking duck flabby.

Two restaurants on one block, both with a highly developed sense of service, each with low price and high standards and something original to offer. I'd enjoy keeping this case open for further investigation.