Good luck, as I would define it, would be to have to eat Chinese food every day. And so I have been lucky the last few months. Washington has many Chinese restaurants, hundreds of them, far too many to cover in one dining guide. And while that is to be applauded, it means that I could but cover a small fraction of them and was forced to leave out even many that had been highly recommended by readers. There are only a few superb Chinese restaurants in this area, but there are also only a few bad ones. Nearly all of them are rather good restaurants serving a wide variety of dishes composed of largely fresh foods. Chinese restaurants, moreover, are reasonably priced, most of them serving a substantial dinner for less than $25 a couple.

Chinese restaurants also typically serve long hours, staying open late and being willing to serve a full meal in the middle of the afternoon, when other restaurants have closed between lunch and dinner. Chinese restaurants are usually open Sundays, and routinely wrap up your leftovers for you to finish at home. In other words, Chinese restaurants are immensely convenient.

And, as typical as their assets are, Chinese restaurants fall prey to typical flaws as well. Foremost are the flaws in cooking. There are but a few seconds' difference between a mediocre Chinese restaurant and a very good one, for that is all it takes to turn crisp snow peas into greem slime or soft pink shrimp to fishy rubber chunks. Timing is delicate, and so is seasoning. The distinction between brown gravy and a memorable oyster sauce can be but a touch. And then there are grease and starch, the Chinese culinary roads to ruin. Both are vital to the cuisine -- in moderation. And the excess of either can ruin a perfectly fine dish. Finally are the pitfalls that have the most annoying and lingering effects, the overuse of soy sauce and monosodium glutamate.

But it won't take long before I will again by craving dim sum, tea smoked duck, shrimp velvet, oysters with ginger and scallions, steamed pork with grapefruit peel, moo shi pork, Szechuan crisp beef, beef chow foon, shrimp toast, dan dan noodles . . . Beef with broccoli: Shanghai Camphor and tea smoked duck: Szechuan and Hunan, Hsian Foong Cold appetizers: Hunam Crystal shrimp natural: China Garden (Rosslyn) Dim sum: Tung Bor Four-star dumplings: Hu Yuan Fried ice cream: China Garden (Rosslyn) Fried oysters with green peppers and black beans: New Village Hunan beef: Yenching Palace Peking duck: Duck Chang, Enching Palace, Peking Gourmet Peking Gourmet chicken: Peking Gourmet Shredded chicken with chili and blac k beans: China Garden (Rosslyn)

Shrimp Peking style: North China, Pine and Bamboo Shrimp toast: Hsian Foong Smoked chicken: Hunan Garden Steamed whole fish: Hu Yuan, Szechuan and Hunan Szechuan crispy beef: Szechuan, Szechuan and Hunan Yuling duck: China Paradise China 8411 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. 585-2275. L $2.50-$3.75, D $4.25-$6. L daily ex Sat. Sun. D daily. Closed Mon. No credit cards. Reservations accepted, suggested on Sat. Street parking and public lot across the street. Beer and wine only.

One of the few restaurants to get bigger and better at the same time, the China has long been a favorite Silver Spring restaurant that grew into a moderate-size attractive dining room from a tiny hole in the wall. The menu is short, with little more than the most familiar Chinese dishes. But many people order a banquet -- for four or more, it is probably the most inexpensive banquet in town -- and leave the choice to the chef. You can eat well and reasonably off the menu, starting with dumplings in an unusually good dough and crab-filled wontons of uncommon lightness. Shrimp Peking is another example of unusually skillful frying, the crusts fragile and the shrimps tender. Vegetables here are crisp and bright, meats and seafoods gently cooked. The prevalent flaw is underseasoning, so mild dishes like moo shi pork or chicken with vegetables may need tableside doctoring. The energetic service enhances what is likely to be a satisfying, reasonably priced meal. China Garden 1901 N. Moore St., Arlington (Rosslyn). 525-5317. L. $2.25-$6.50, D $4-$8.95. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Street parking and free parking after 5:30 p.m. in roof garage. Full bar service.

The interior might be called Edwardian Chinese, with its high-backed chairs, and the picture windows overlook a myriad of highways in the foreground as well as the Potomac. But what is most unusual in this restaurant is that the service is expert and gracious, unlike the efficient indifference in most Chinese restaurants. Though this is a branch of the Bethesda China Gardens -- which has food as indifferent as the more typical service -- the cooking in Rosslyn is superior to all but the best of Washington's Chinese kitchens. The Cantonese menu is extensive, with a full range of chow foons and black bean sauces, steamed chicken and pork, conches and whelks in addition to the familiar. And the simplest Cantonese dishes are prepared with verve that reminds you that Cantonese food is every bit as interesting as Szechuanese, in case you forgot. Taste crystal shrimp natural, the jumbo shrimp perfectly tender and moist, in a glisten of sauce, on a bed of raw shredded scallions, carrots and ginger. Or shredded chicken with chile and black beans should be tasted, its light wash of sauce slightly hot, smoky in flavor and salty from the fermented beans. Steamed pork with Virginia ham is a lovely blend of softness, oiliness, saltiness and delicacy. And whatever you try, save room for fried ice cream, a dessert that fills everyone's sweet dreams, being ice cream fried in a crunchy batter, flamed with rum and then doused with chocolate sauce. China Garden 4711 Montgomery La., Bethesda. 657-4665. L $3-$6.50, D $3-$9.50. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking lot next door. Full bar service.

Disarming you by confusion, the Bethesda China Garden's menu divides into "authentic Chinese dinners," "family dinners" and the regular a la carte list. It is not only repetitious, but gives you no reliable clues as to what dishes are best. Having sampled a range among the chef's specialties and ordinary dishes, I, too, am at a loss. Seafoods are cooked lightly, commendably so in the baked oysters in ginger and spring onions; but the crystal shrimp in black bean sauce were still raw (and reeking of iodine). Duck is fine in a soup with bean curd, once you add salt or soy sauce, but pan-fried duck with lemon sauce had no duck flavor, just crunchiness under its sweet lemon covering. China Garden is a busy restaurant, its several rooms often packed with diners. In light of that, it is hard to understand why dishes often taste stale or reheated. And in light of a fairly ambitious menu that includes conch, squid, steamed fish, squabs and other delicacies that raise it from the routine, it is hard to understand why the dishes are so carelessly made, with pools of soupy sauce turning even moo shi pork into a damp mess. The brick-walled rooms are comfortable if undistinguished; the service is efficient if indifferent; and the location is convenient for Bethesdans. But China Garden is badly in need of an infusion of enthusiasm. China Gate 310 N. Fairfax St., Alexandria. 548-8080. L $3.25-$5.95, D $4.95-$18. Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking lot. Full bar service.

One of the most attractive Chinese restaurants in the metropolitan area. China Gate is elegantly carpeted and furnished with high-backed chairs at well-spaced tables. It is decorated with beautiful screens and hangings, softly lighted, and prettily wallpapered. In addition, the staff are interested, helpful and attentive. The food is competent, sometimes verging on outstanding. Vegetables are crisp, seasonings well balanced, though often catering to timid tastes. Start a meal with dumplings, highly seasoned and quite good. Among main dishes, shrimp pepperada is among the best, the large portion of shrimp in a thick tomato sauce with chopped scallions and bell peppers, slightly sweet and faintly hot. Hunan beef does not taste authentically Hunanese, but it is a pleasant dish of juicy beef with black beans and red peppers. The menu ranges from simple lo mein -- tasty, but made with spaghetti rather than Chinese noodles -- to Peking duck -- a decent job. And if the preparations do not always rise above the ordinary, the environment compensates. China Gourmet 9444 Arlington Blvd., Fairfax. 591-8380. L $2.95-$4.25, D $3.75-$7.95. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking lot. Full bar service.

With a menu covering the range from subgum chow mein to Szechuan double-cooked pork, the China Gourmet can satisfy every kind of taste Fairfax might provide. The range of competence, too, stretches from soupy moo shi pork that is oversalted to Hunan fish that is crisp on the surface with fresh, moist flesh underneath, in a peppery, garlicky, gingery dark sauce just faintly sweetened, one of the best whole fish I have tasted in town. Although the pu pu tray is generous, nothing on it is worth special note. Start, instead, with soup, either rich, tomatoey hot and sour, one of the most unusual and tastiest around, or a special wonton soup with fried wonton, shrimp and chicken. China Gourmet duck, in a lemony soy sauce with scallions, can be superb, at least when the fat is properly cooked off. Some dishes taste starchy or are floating in sauce, and the salt level needs more careful watching. But timing of the cooking is accurate, textures of the dishes appealing. And the two rooms, well decorated and warmly welcoming with fireplace and pine paneling, are pleasant. Furthermore, the staff are as gracious as if you were guests in their home, which is nearly true in this family operation. China Inn 631 H St. NW. 628-9282. L $5.25-$9.75, D $5.75-$16.95. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Street parking. Full bar service.

Something new has come to Chinatown in the redecorating of the China Inn in pastel vinyl and Formica, with flowered wallpaper and purple booths. The blithe spirit extends to the service, exceedingly cheerful and personable, though waiters disappear for long stretches, usually just when you need something. As for the menu, it turns the China Inn into two restaurants. The first page is house specialties, averaging $7 or $8, and including luxuries like lobster stir-fried with ginger and scallions, seafoods and pork with vegetables in a crisp basket of fried shredded taro root, steamed fish and clams or snails in black bean sauce. They are good dishes, particularly the rice noodles fried with pork and bean sprouts, chow mai foon, and the lobster. Inside the menu is the full range of standard Cantonese cooking. Pork, for instance, is listed 25 ways, then roast pork another 18 ways. Most of the inside menu is pedestrian, with "native family luncheons" being won ton soup and chicken chow mein. Oddly, the same dishes are occasionally duplicated under the specialties at higher cost. The key may be that the inside menu is so low priced -- with many dishes under $4 -- that they are skimpy. Beef with broccoli, for example, costs $3.25, but is tough, dry meat bits and broccoli swimming in a pale, starchy tasteless sauce, nowhere near the quality of the front-page dishes. One exception to warnings about the interior menu is breaded squid, the tender squid in a puffy crunch of batter, irresistibly compelling you to nibble the entire, enormous plateful. China Paradise 138-A Maple Ave., Vienna. 938-1557. L $2.50-$4, D $3.75-$8.50. L daily ex Sun., D daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking lot. Full bar service.

One of the pleasures of dining in China is the damp cloths brought to wash with after dinner. And China Paradise goes one better, bringing the towels hot and perfumed, and serving along with them a light, refreshing cold apricot liqueur to send you off happily. Of course, you would have left happy anyway, because the food is very good, each dish distinctive in flavor and appealing in texture and color. The service is kindly, the room spacious for the number of tables. The tropical drinks that most Chinese restaurants are now attempting -- badly -- are here light and refreshing rather than sickly sweet. While the appetizers are not particularly interesting, except for commendably light frying of the egg rolls and shrimp, the main dishes are excellent.Yuling duck joins Washington's best Chinese duck dishes, being a very meaty and crisp bird permeated with herbs and fat-free, with a thin lemony soy sauce poured over it to barely cling to the meat. Chef's special chicken is quite hot, studded with pieces of dried orange peel, whole star anise and hot peppercorns, all of which you pick out and set aside as you eat the moist chicken. Yu-shiang broccoli with pork is less peppery, over-sauced but well seasoned with ginger. The major flaws in the cooking are too much sauce and occasional overstarching. But the seasonings are in tantalizing balance, the timing is precise, and the resulting dishes exhibit flair. Chintao 12633 Laurel-Bowie Rd., Laurel. 953-3050. L $2.75-$3.75, D $3.55-$6.95. Open daily. MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking lot. Beer and wine only.

A Mandarin menu in a chop suey neighborhood is eventually going to be a problem. Entering this small restaurant is a pleasant surprise, for the red and black striped walls with gilded dragons, the silk embroideries and the half-roof over the bar combine in a fresh and pretty motif. The waitress, in jeans, is an enthusiastic server. Prices are low, and the menu is an assortment of authentic dishes; Peking duck, beef Szechuan, chicken with walnuts or kung pao style, shrimp velvet, thrice-cooked pork. A few Mandarin, a few Cantonese, a few Szechuan, a few Shanghai dishes and even curries and tempura offer something for everyone. But chow mein was what I saw everyone eating. They should have been trying the fried dumplings, small ones that were highly spiced and juicy, or shrimp toast. Main dishes suffer from penny-pinching -- mostly cabbage in the moo shi pork; stewy, grainy beef; and more gravy than seafood in some dishes. And the seasoning is faint. What is worse, the sauces and soups are heavily starched. But vegetables are bright and crisp. The cooking tastes as if the chef is trying not to offend American tastes and stretch a little to go a long way. With such a pretty place and interesting menu, that is a shame. Court of the Mandarins 1824 M St., NW. 223-6666. L $3.95-$5.50, D $4.50-$6.95. L daily ex Sat., D daily. Closed Sunday. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking. Full bar service.

Spacious, quiet, dimly lit and comfortable, Court of the Mandarins is a rare find: a moderately priced downtown restaurant where it is possible to hold a private conversation. Its menu is interesting, and sensibly arranged, with all shrimp dishes one price, all chicken dishes one price, all vegetable dishes one price and so forth, and all of them reasonable prices. The fly in this ointment is that the service and cooking are variable, sometimes felicitous and sometimes uncaring. You can, however, make it work for you. Start with cold appetizers, for the assortment is unusual, and the hot appetizers are bland. If you like peppery food, it is a good choice; the kitchen can really ignite its hot dishes. Beef and lamb dishes are likely to be the best ones. Kung pao shrimp is also nicely cooked, its sauce light and properly biting. Vegetables are fresh and crisp, and rarely is a sauce greasy or starchy. But some dishes are oversauced or underseasoned, and fish is likely to be dry. Too often, even the character of the food will not interrupt your conversation. Even so, no Chinese restaurant in downtown Washington outside of Chinatown is serving food any better than this, and none of the others it so quiet and comfortable. David Lee's Empress 1875 Connecticut Ave., NW. 462-8110. L $2.65-$4.55, D $5.55-$9.75. Open daily. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested for parties of five or more. Parking in T St. garage. Full bar service.

One of the grand old red-wrapped Chinese dining rooms of Washington, the Connecticut Avenue Empress now is sufficiently run down to wear a slight bus station air. It has shown, on the other hand, three-star service, with thoughtful waiters and waitresses attending nearby, skillfully boning fish and wrapping Peking duck in pancakes, frequently removing dirty plates and keeping close watch on your needs. The menu is the usual multi-regional mix with no surprises. But, unless the chef had confused sugar with pepper when I visited, the spicy hot dishes are misnamed. Whole fish with hot ginger sauce, besides being dry and salty, swam in a starchy, faint-hearted sweet pool; shredded pork in garlic sauce was mild enough for a small child, and undermined by frozen peas and carrots outnumbering the tree ears and water chestnuts. Even so, it was a pleasant dish, unlike the beef with broccoli in a pool of grease, its broccoli lifeless and its beef coated with uncooked cornstarch. Peking duck is a satisfactory choice; though the meat was fatty, it was moist and freshly cooked, and the skin was crisp. Start with fried wonton, which are particularly crisp, and fried shrimp balls. Then tread carefully among the main dishes, which are decently priced, if nothing to linger in the memory. And enjoy the service. Duck Chang's 4427 John Marr Dr., Annandale. 941-9400. L $1.95-$3.25, D $3.25-$8.75. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested for parties of eight or more during weekends. Parking lot. Full bar service.

Some people will do anything for good Peking duck -- drive around the Beltway, wait in line, sit as crowded as the subway at rush hour. And that is why Duck Chang's is so popular. Its kitchen issues cart after cart of outstanding Peking duck, crisp and lacquered a deep gold, the meat juicy and tender, the fat carefully removed, the bird reduced to supple slices in a great flash of a knife. In brief moments the meat and skin, pancakes and scallions and hoisin sauce fill the table and the carcass is whisked back to the kitchen. Diners who know what they are about will have ordered duck soup and duck meat with bean sprouts made with those carcasses. And a whole duck meal at Duck Chang's is a parade of excellence. Duck, of course, is but a small part of the menu. And the rest of the cooking is worthy of praise. But duck is the star. Time your visit, if you can, to avoid the crowds. Far East 5071 Nicholson Lane, Rockville. 881-5552. L $2.65-$3.95, D $3.50-$17. Open daily. No credit cards. Reservations accepted only for parties of four or more. Parking lot. Full bar service.

One of the mysteries I have yet to solve is the immense popularity of the Far East restaurant. Crowds line up on weekends to be crammed into insufficient space, served with occasional efficiency. What they are eating is large portions of reasonably priced food that is nothing more than average. The ingredients are fresh, but other than excellent shrimp toast, the cooking is distinguished only by the excess of sugar in most dishes. Peking soup is mostly starch, neither hot nor sour as it is supposed to be. Chicken with cashews has the nuts just dumped uncooked on top, rather than stir-fried with the chicken. Far East shrimp, batter-fried, is pleasant, but only faintly peppered. Most of the dishes, in other words, are all right, at least if you find sweetness inoffensive. But one dish, whole fish with meat sauce, was outrageously expensive ($17), decently cooked for frozen fish, but sauced in a dreadful greasy, thick opaque beige sauce of appalling blandness. In most cases, though, the ingredients are fine, and you get a lot of food for the money. but you can do better for your money in other Montgomery County Chinese restaurants and not have to wait in line to spend it. Germaine's 2400 Wisconsin Ave., NW. 965-1185. £ 4.95-$7.25, D $6.75-$15.95. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking and free parking lot a half block away. Full bar service.

Yes, I know Germaine's is a fine restaurant, an elegant pan-Asian restaurant with an adventurous menu, daily specials that are frequently exciting, and some of the best grilled meats and shrimp you will ever eat. It is a serenely pretty restaurant, skylit and spacious, privacy assisted by indoor trees between tables. And its service is sophisticated. But let me tell you about my last meal at Germaine's when I avoided the wonderful Vietnamese and Korean and Filipino dishes and ate only Chinese dishes. We started well, with cold Szechuan noodles and bon bon chicken, small portions but flavored well with peanut and soy and hot pepper. Spareribs here are the best in town, spicy, highly peppered and charcoal grilled. But they were served rare. Melon broth was fragrant with fresh coriander and crunchy with cubes of nearly raw vegetables plus chicken and black mushrooms. So far, except for the sparerib problem, dinner was superb. But the main dishes were grim: Peking duck that was dry and hard; Szechuan dried beef that was not dry at all, but merely damp beef, carrots and celery shreds highly peppered. Moo shi pork, also damp, tasted mainly of bean sprouts. The ending was an improvement, ginger and lychee ice creams that were delicate and creamy. Golden Palace 726 7th St., NW. 783-1225. L $4.40-$6, D $5-$12. Open daily. Ae, d, MC, V. Reservations accepted only for parties of six or more during lunch, four or more during dinner. Street parking or commercial lot across the street. Full bar service.

Hong Kong lives, at least in the interior of the Golden Palace restaurant, extravagant with carved wood panels, ornately painted ceiling, gilded carvings on the walls and carved chairs at the large tables. Waiters wear a black tie, though their formality does not extend to their behavior; service can bog down while they converse among themselves. While the menu is long and interesting, many of the more exotic dishes are not actually available. And this is one of the few restaurants that will not serve half a Peking duck. The Golden Palace's grandeur is reflected in its ingredients: large, plentiful shrimp, and generous portions of chicken breast in steamed dishes where restaurants such as Ruby and Kowloon use only wings. Its beef is tender, its oysters plump. But the preparations are slapdash. Beef is clumsily cut, shrimp toast heavy and tough.Meats are stewed over insufficiently high heat, and sauces are tasteless except for hot sauces, which are hot but otherwise lacking flavor. The best dishes, therefore, are those that stand on their own, with hardly any seasoning necessary, like oysters with scallions ginger. The only flaw I found with this dish was that I had ordered it with chili and black bean sauce. In all, the food is correct in nature -- so correct that you have the choice of Chinese or American broccoli -- but lacks flair and slips into being insipid. As for the dim sum at lunch, the choice is wide, and you should remember to order steamed rather than fried versions, as the fried ones are apt to be greasy. Great Shanghai 809 H St. NW. 638-1010. L $2.75-$6.85, D $3.25-$6.85. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Street parking or parking lot. Full bar service.

The lesson to be learned here is that a run-of-the-mill restaurant can have a couple of particularly good dishes that make the restaurant worth adding to your repertoire. The Great Shanghai is a small place, with red-checked vinyl tablecloths and nice, familial service. The food is reasonably priced, but much of it, like the beef with broccoli, is disappointing. During its few short years I have visited the restaurant from time to time, mostly hitting the disappointments. Then I found pay dirt. The dish to remember is Great Shanghai soup noodles with mixed meat, a remarkable $3.75 at my last visit. It is a huge bowl of delicious soup, enough for two people, chock full of thin noodles, chicken, shrimp, several other kinds of seafood and meats, and vegetables, all enriching the broth with their flavors. It is hearty, homey food and a meal in itself, unless you can't resist my other best-find, the shrimp with hot ginger sauce, moist and tender shrimp of admirable size in a very hot red tomato-scallion-onion-garlic-mushroom melange. For once I suggest you skip the dim sum at lunch and substitute the soup noodles. Great Wall 1120 19th St. NW. 296-4956. L $4.50-$5.50, D $5.25-$10. L daily ex Sun, D daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking. full bar service.

While this is the only Chinese restaurant I know that serves cheesecake, it has a pretty standard Chinese menu of Szechuan, Canton and Mandarin dishes prepared in a pretty standard manner. Nevertheless, the restaurant is packed and noisy at lunchtime and weekend evenings, with tables close together and service that veers from prompt to forgetful. The room is a catalogue of reds, with walls, ceiling and floor each in a different rosy hue. Adding dark, heavy wooden beams and arches, the look is distinctly non-Chinese.

Dinner should start with cold port with chef's special hot sauce if you are up to it, for the pale port slices are covered with a murderous amount of smashed garlic that grows delicious if you can take it. The hot appetizers are mostly like fried lead, and the hot and sour soup tastes only of pepper. In the main dishes, vegetables are crisp, but meats can be gristly and ineptly cut. Crispy duck has excellent tea-smoked flavor, though its meat has been dust-dry. Perhaps the surest choice among main dishes is the Great Wall combination, meats and seafoods with crisp vegetables in a sauce that has absorbed their flavors. But in general, the Great Wall has only modest accomplishments in its kitchen. Hang Chow 2007 Veirs Mill Rd., Rockville. 340-2110. L $2-$4, D $2.50-$9. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking lot. Full bar service.

Such decorative elaboration is a surprise in a little strip shopping center. Hang Chow gleams with a carved and painted ceiling, red lacquered columns and mustard walls. The city of Hangchow is evoked by a rounded doorway between the two dining rooms. Like the environment, the menu contains surprises, stuffed whole lobster and lychee chicken among them. To start, the spareribs, fried chicken wings and shrimp toast are admirable. The hot and sour soup is odd, a golden chicken broth rather than the usual dark soup, but its taste is fine.Among main dishes, lobster Cantonese is a bargain at $7, and a very good preparation. Its sauce is too thick, but tasty with salty black beans, ginger and ground meat over sweet, tender, fresh pieces of lobster in the shell. Hang Chow stuffed shrimp is also appealing, the butterflied shrimp coated with chopped pork, mushrooms and water chestnuts, layered with bacon and topped with a tomato sauce. Other dishes, however, have been tasteless and soggy. The casseroles, photographed on the menu, are wan soups. Hang Chow offers reasonably priced food that can be zesty or bland, so pick among the dishes those that are meant to be spicy. Honolulu 5634 Telegraph Rd., Alexandria. 960-3668. L $3.50-$5, D $4.75-$15. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lot. Full bar service.

Honolulu has been highly praised, and its grasscloth walls with Polynesian artifacts show that somebody worked hard on the decor. But the promise is not carried to the table. Among appetizers, egg rolls are unusually good, well stuffed with meat; and the crab Rangoon has a nice cream cheese and crab filling in the crisp fried wonton dough. Roast crisp duck is sufficiently crisp and meaty. And kung pao chicken is spicy and fresh-tasting. But the specialties of the house are the least interesting dishes. Tung ting shrimp are just everyday stir-fried shrimp and vegtables, and imperial twins, which is filet of beef with shrimp and mushrooms, is equally plain. In short, the food is all right, but except for the egg rolls, it is considerably plainer and simpler than the surroundings and menu description imply. The Polynesian cocktails the menu features are closer to syrups than to fresh tropical fruit drinks. Hsian Foong 2919 N. Washington Blvd., Arlington. 527-6677. L $3-$4.50, D $7-$8. L daily ex Sun, D daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking lot. Full bar service.

With three dining areas decorated in red and gold velvet wallpaper, Oriental cutouts and brass chandeliers, Hsian Foong is informal but attractive. The menu covers a typically wide range of dishes. Shanghai cuisine with sprinklings of Szechuan, Hunan and Peking. Much of the food is done so well that the errors are far outweighed. The shrimp toast is enough reason to try Hsian Foong; I have never found better. The menu lists at least 14 chicken dishes, with lemon chicken a highlight. Don't miss the camphor and tea smoked duck and choose one of the shrimp dishes, perhaps peppery two-kind shrimp or tung ting shrimp. Beef has been disappointing at Hsian Foong, too thinly cut and overcooked. Whole fish dishes are better, the steamed one more successful than the fried Hunan fish, which may be overcooked and underseasoned. Hsian Foong should be remembered for its small attentions to patrons and to food that makes the difference between an everyday Chinese restaurant and one that stands above the crowd. Hunam 3299 M St., NW. 338-3200. L $3.50-$4.25, D $4.25-$12. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Commercial parking lot across the street. Full bar service.

Beautiful Trudie's, that avant garde green and white Georgetown restaurant with curved walls and skylights and the good sense to decorate simply, has been revised and revived. Now it is Hunam, and its prices have been dropped along with its pretensions. The service now is prompt and taciturn rather than inept but showy. And the food is colorful, nicely cooked and well-textured, sometimes excellent and sometimes oversauced and oversalted. Hunan shows talent in the kitchen. The problem is that business is slow enough that some of the food does not taste fresh. Steamed trout, for instance, was butterflied and bedded on black mushrooms and sprinkled with shreds of ginger and Virginia ham. It would have been an exquisite dish if the fish had been sweetly fresh rather than strongly fishy. Soft, tender shrimp in a deep, rich hot garlic with ginger and bamboo shoots, again tasted of something insufficiently fresh. Two dishes that were outstanding, though, were the assorted cold appetizers -- jellyfish, bon bon chicken, anise beef and abalone, an unusually varied and delicious variety -- and shredded chicken and abalone to wrap in pancakes like moo shi pork. In all, the Hunam is serving some dishes unique in Washington, along with inexpensive luncheon buffets and order-ahead banquets. The kitchen staff is obviously talented. And despite its flaws, it deserves a try. Hu Nan 4660 Kenmore Ave., Alexandria. 370-0060. L $2.50-$3.50, D $3.95-$6. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lot. Full bar service.

One restaurant you can expect to hear more about is the Hu Nan. Like few other Chinese restaurants, it combines pretty rooms, low prices, warm and attentive service with very good food. The three rooms offer tables and booths under an attractive slat ceiling, an attempt at elegance that goes a bit far with plastic flowers in the plants, but is endearing. The people who wait on you are well-informed and communicative. The menu is not extensive, but includes a variety of Szechuan and Peking dishes (oddly, not much is obviously Hunanese), served in large portions at surprisingly low prices. You can order a pu pu platter for one, though the spareribs, which are spicy and juicy, are all that is worthwhile on it. Dumplings are wonderfully spicy, though their dough is too thick. Obviously, the chef understands well the use of spices. Certainly, you will want to try something Hunanese, perhaps shrimp and chicken with Hunan sauce. The small shrimp glisten in a translucent wash of sauce. The chicken is very juicy, faintly hot. But between them is an unexpected divider of iceberg lettuce and tomato. Twice-cooked pork is far hotter, a delicious mix of crisp cabbage and green pepper with thin-sliced moist port. Even simple beef with broccoli is extremely well made, one of the best in town. If a dish is greasy, it is only slightly so. No dish has had a pool of sauce or a starchy thickening. Only the fried dishes were disappointing -- shrimp tempura, won tons, crisp duck, all of which tasted reheated or doughy or dry. The Hu Nan shows strong promise. Hunan Garden 2104 Veirs Mill Rd., Rockville. 340-6880. L $2.25-$3.95, D $4-$7.95. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lot. Full bar service.

The bricked and arched interior, more Spanish than Chinese in spirit, houses a quiet restaurant with well-spaced tables served by helpful waiters. The pitfalls are in the kitchen. Some of the food is excellent -- an appetizer of smoked chicken that is crusty and savory, with smoky flavor permeating the moist meat; lobster Cantonese that is juicy and sweet, though its egg-scallion sauce is pallid. A Fire Pot of Eight Delights, available only from September to April, is a marvel of a full-meal soup, stocked with meatballs, fish balls, quail eggs, chicken, beef, shrimp and vegetables in a rich broth, with a peanut sauce to add tang. And the dim sum here are unusual and good. Scallion puffs were oversalted at last try, but the small steamer buns were superb, with juices bursting as you bit into them. On the other hand, fried appetizers are dull stuff, beef with broccoli is an inferior mix of coarse, well-done beef and broccoli stems with no flowerets, in a soupy sauce. Meats tend to be dry, sauces overthickened and underseasoned. So if you order dishes that are not sauced -- smoked chicken, fire pots and the like -- you will eat better than this restaurant's average. Hu Yuan 3211 N. Washington Blvd., Arlington. 527-7208.L $3-$4, D $6-$14. Open daily. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking at First American Bank lot after 6 p.m. Full bar service.

Hu Yuan is the most pretentious Chinese restaurant in town. A small place, it serves an enormous menu of dishes named after people or otherwise cutely titled and described in Romantic Novel prose that raises unwarrented expectations. It is all so outrageous that you are either surprised when it is good or surprised when it is bad (both of which it is depending on what you order). Appetizers, except the egg rolls, are excellent: Four-star dumplings are beautifully decorated and seasoned, though my last batch was undercooked. Chinese bread is delicate bread dough filled with ground meat and ginger (needing more meat and seasoning), topped with bits of scallion. Fine, except they cost double or quadruple what anyone else charges for such dumplings. Hot and sour soup desperately needed seasoning, though its texture and ingredients were fine. But main dishes have been a parade of remarkably bland sauces -- except for the cloying, sweet-and-sour sauce -- over ingredients of no special quality. One exception, however, was stellar. The steamed fish, the single bargain of the menu, was a perfectly cooked rockfish in a steamy broth garnished with slivers of Virginia ham, black mushrooms, ginger and black beans. The dumplings, house noodles and fish are worth the trip, if you don't mind fending off an abrupt waiter who pushes you to order more. Inn of the Eight Immortals 6201 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church. 534-3044. L $3.25-$5.95, D $3.50-$14.95.Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lot. Full bar service.

The menu calls the decor -- pagodas, murals, fountains and dragon columns -- effulgent. I call it excessive. But it does divert attention from the food. Stop at the egg rolls, which are at least meaty; or order the pu pu tray, which at least is half good. But everything thereafter tastes like chow mein. Seafoods are tough and fishy-tasting, in a swamp of sauce. Meats are chewy, duck is soggy and fatty. Everything swims in a starchy pool flavored predominantly and overwhelmingly with salt. Even the gregarious, efficient and very pleasant service does not compensate. King Chuan 962 Wayne Ave., Silver Spring.589-5255. L $2.25-$3.25, D $3.25-$7.95. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Free parking in parking garage for dinner. Full bar service.

Not every restaurant can be expected to be all things. Thus, King Chuan is not beautiful; its tables are close and its decoration minimal. It is not wholly gracious; the service is atentive on occasion, but waiters studiously ignore your signals if they are not ready to serve you. Its food is far from wonderful, being over-sauced and frequently greasy, starchy and coarse. But prices are reasonable and quantity generous. And the moo shi shrimp (or pork or beef or chicken) is crisp in texture, smoky in flavor and generally agreeable. The whole fish nicely cooked in a very hot sauce with a slight raw-pepper undertone is nevertheless a good dish. Thus, King Chuan is the kind of Chinese restaurant where you can find a dish that suits you when you are looking for a simple meat at a low price. Kowloon 1105 H St. NW. 638-4243. L $3-3.50, D $4-$6. Open daily. Ae, cb, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Commercial parking lot across the street. Full bar service.

Kowloon is in the doldrums. It is an attractive restaurant, with green and white bamboo print wallpaper. And its menu is a long catalogue of the wonders of Cantonese cuisine: lotus root with pork, whole chicken stuffed with sweet rice, transparent shrimp balls. But the service is lethargic and, on occasion, surly. The ingredients and sometimes the cooking seem as if everyone had given up. The shrimp are poor quality, the roast pork stale tasting, the roast duck savory but soggy. Noodle dishes, the kind of rock bottom food than can stand up under a skimpy operation, are still good. The beef chow foon is a tasty, earthy dish, and the dim sum at lunch include greasy but delicious crisp shrimp toast fried in bean curd skins, fine har gow and shu mai plus baked pork bows that would be good if the filling were less sweet. Moon Place 3308 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 362-6645. L $3.25-$5.75, D $3.95-$11.95. Open daily. AE, D, MC, V. Rservations accepted. Parking lot in rear. Full bar service.

The Hong Kong look is expressed in gilded dragons and indirect red lights glowing against the ceiling, the full painted-and-carved, red-and-gold treatment that decorates the Moon Palace. Thus, it is a grandiose environment for Sunday morning dim sum, which is the reason and time worth visiting this restaurant. Dim sum range from $1.20 to $1.75, over 30 varieties on the menu but not all of them in the kitchen at any one time. They are pretty good dumplings, well-seasoned and tasting fresh, though the fried types tend to be greasy. Try the spring rolls, har gow, shu mai, fun gor and sausage sweet rice rolls, an intriguing combination of sticky sweet rice, aromatic sausage and the crunch of water chestnuts. Finish with coconut gelatin, squares of slightly sweet gelatin flavored with coconut, light and refreshing. New Village 717 H St. NW. 347-0072. L $2.35-$4.75, D $2.75-$19. Open daily. MC, V. No reservations. Parking lot two doors down.Full bar service.

The window lettering that announces this as a Chinese-American restaurant is misleading. New Village is better than that. The filthy carpet at the entrance is also misleading. New Village is better than that. New Village is one of the last of the old fashioned Chinatown Cantonese restaurants that has remained good. The menu is a long, long list of Cantonese foods at extraordinarily low prices, and on the cashier's desk are signs proclaiming seasonal specialties that are usually the best dishes. You can skip the dim sum; better ones are nearby. Skip to the last page, with its tripe and sizzling rice and casseroles and hundred flowers with shrimp balls. Or order the fresh seafoods from the specialties. Certainly don't miss fried oysters with green peppers and black beans, nearly two dozens plump, barely cooked juicy oysters in a pool of salty-smoky-garlicky and bitingly peppery light sauce with green peppers and onions. It is one of the most memorable Chinese dishes in town.Fried clams or squid might be equally wise choices. But shrimps are somewhat ragged, and roast pork tastes tired. Concentrate on fresh seafoods and on noodle dishes. North China 7814 Old Georgetown Rd., Bethesda. 656-7922. L $2.25-$3.50, D $3.95-$9.95. Open daily. No credit cards. Reservations suggested. Public parking lot across the street. No alcoholic beverages.

Year in and year out, the North China has remained, with occasional lapses, a source of excellent food and fair to surly service. If you can judge a restaurant by its hot and sour soup, North China reaches the top, even if its pepper is restrained. Familiar dishes such as Peking duck and shrimp Peking-style are excellent. Lamb has long been one of the restaurant's stars. And, while beef Szechuan is an odd preparation -- batter-fried rather than the more authentic triple frying -- it is handsomely spiced with Szechuan peppers and dried orange peel. If you don't object to fatty foods, sample steamed pork with winter vegetable, the pork steamed to softness with the skin and backfat left on, its fat seasoning a bed of chopped dried kale. The food at North China is not only very good, it is varied in flavor without dish after dish being similarly seasoned. Thus, though the menu is not as long as many Chinese restaurants, it offers vivid and interesting contrasts. Peking 823 15th St. NW. 737-4540. L $2.55-$3.75, D $3.50-$14.50. Open daily. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking in PMI garage after 6 p.m. Full bar service.

A Chinese restaurant that has seen its heyday, the Peking restaurant has let its Hong Kong style grow threadbare, but still turns out decent if unexciting food served politely and efficiently.O o soup, long its most famous dish, remains possibly its best dish, at least second only to the hot and sour soup which it resembled. Oversalting is the predominant flaw in the cooking, but that is understandable since the one main dish I tried that was not over-salted had no flavor at all. But vegetables are crisp, duck fat-free and moo shi pork reliable. It is a run-of-the-mill Chinese restaurant to remember when you are downtown and want a quick, unassuming Chinese meal. Peking Gourmet 6029 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church. 671-8088. L $2.25-$3.75, D $3.45-$8.95. Open daily. MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lot. Full bar service.

For two reasons alone, you should head for Falls Church when you are hungry for chinese food. Those two reasons are Peking Gourmet chicken and Peking duck at the Peking Gourmet Inn. The duck is a hot contender for the best in town. It is plump, juicy, tender and golden, with crisp skin that is elegantly pared off the bird tableside. Next, the fat is scored and scraped off, then the meat is thinly sliced and all is served with the usual pancakes, hoisin sauce and scallions. Peking Gourmet chicken consists of plump cubes of boneless chicken in the lightest, crispest, grease-free batter, highly spiced with garlic, scallions and ginger, with enough hot pepper to tantalize but not sear. The rest of the menu is competent, the cooking carefully timed and the seasonings mild but pleasant. Fried dumplings outshine the other appetizers, which can be stolid, and hot-and-sour duck soup is heartwarming. But I have not found anything else to match those two wonderful dishes except the service, which is attentive, though not always comprehending. When the owner is keeping his eye on your table, you are treated like a guest in his home. It can be a memorable visit, and the price for it is reasonable. Pine and Bamboo 5541 Nicholson La., Rockville. 468-0011. L $2.45-$3.55, D $4.50-$12.25. Open daily. MC, V. Reservations accepted only for parties of six or more. Parking lot. Full bar service.

The newest of the ornate-tradition Chinese restaurants is Pine and Bamboo, its cavernous dining room bounded by gilded carvings and dotted with high-backed tufted and arched banquettes. Also in the grand tradition is the service, experienced and polished, far more gentle and distinguished than most of Washington's grand Chinese restaurants, where your food is nearly (or sometimes) thrown at you. Even the drinks can be special, such concoctions as a peach-orange-coconut daiquiri, though most of them are sickly sweet. Appetizers, except for crisp chicken legs and fried chicken wings, are the least successful dishes on the menu. The restaurant's strength is in the quality of its food rather than the breadth of its choices, for the menu is standard multi-regional Chinese. House special beef is spicy and crisp, the good meat coated with ginger, garlic and scallions. Crisp duck is subtly seasoned, not as pungent as many versions, but superbly textured and served with faintly sweetened steamed bread that suits it remarkably. Shrimp Peking-style, felling you with their heat after you eat them, are beautifully cooked and lightly sauced. And this is one of the few restaurants that can fry a whole fish without overcooking and drying the flesh, though I wish its sweet and sour sauce were more delicate. This is a good restaurant, fresh and attractive, energetic and ambitious, a far cry from the usual storefront make-shift Chinese restaurant environment, and the food is at least competent if not often brilliant. Ruby 609 H. St. NW. 347-5014. L $3.25-$5.25, D $3.95-$10.50. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested for parties of five or more. Complimentary parking at RBI lot across the street, commercial lot next door. Full bar service.

The best thing about Ruby restaurant is that it offers an assortment of dim sum for one person at lunch for $3.25. I have often wondered why other restaurants don't make it easier for a single diner to taste a variety of dumplings. Beyond that, though, Ruby is neglectful of its patrons in several ways. First, the furniture is coming apart at the seams; the booths half-collapse when you stand up. Second, service is not paced; either you wait painfully long or every dish comes at once. Finally, food is often slapdash, uncaring. Spicy shrimp with cashews is minced shrimp with green pepper cubes in a dark, skimpily spiced sauce, and more than once the kitchen has left off the cashews until reminded, then dumped some on top. Single dishes like beef with broccoli are cooked too slowly so the meat steams instead of browns, swamped in tasteless brown gravy, and served as an unappealing, bland mess. Lemon chicken is better, overcooked and overstarched but at least seasoned. The two satisfactory dishes I have tried in recent months are the taro balls at lunch and the beef chow foon. In general, though, Ruby has priced itself and sneered itself out of the competition. Shanghai 5157 Lee Hyw., Arlington. 536-7446.L $2.75-$6.50, D $4-$9.25. Closed Mon. MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking lot. Beer and wine only.

Long a favorite with China hands, the Shanghai is a small, simple-looking restaurant in the middle of a shopping strip, nothing you would much notice as you drove by. But it has some of the best Chinese cooking around, as well as pretty ordinary preparations. The best of the foods are the highly seasoned main dishes, for the chef has a way with ginger, knows how to build a complex sauce, and uses good ingredients to good advantage. Even a simple dish like beef with broccoli carries more nuances in its brown sauce than nearly anywhere else.Soups are full-flavored, shrimp are large and nicely cooked, crispy duck -- though not one of the most successful dishes -- comes with delightful steamed buns to wrap the meat. Sauces tend to be oily, but compensate with their personality. Shanghai Delight 4654 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 363-7070. L $2.85-$3.50, D $2.95-$8. L daily ex Sun, D daily. CB, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Adjacent parking lot. Full bar service.

So popular has this neighborhood, family-run restaurant become, not for the grandeur of the food but for its simple homey nature, that it has lost that nature. The family can't handle the business. The service on a crowded evening is so slow and forgetful that you lose your appetite in annoyance. Then, when the food arrives, it is not even hot. Seasonings are bland, nothing memorably good or memorably bad. The diner gets an indifferent meal, but at reasonable prices, and nobody seems to mind how the children behave. Shanghai Garden 4469 Connecticut Ave., NW 362-3000. L $2.65-$4.50, D $3.75-$8.85. L daily ex Sun, D daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking lot. Full bar service.

This is a middling family restaurant: middling size, with middling service and middling food at middling prices. Shrimp toast is greasy and gummy, dumplings are doughy and sauces lack character. Shrimp dishes may combine, peculiarly, large and tiny shrimp in what seems a too-visible budget measure. But the moo shi pork, though it has been served with burned pancakes, is very good, and Shanghai Garden soup is a savory beginning. Szechuan 615 I St. NW. 393-0131. L $3.25-$4.75, D $3.95-$10.95. Open daily. AE, V. Reservations accepted only for parties of four or more. Street parking and small adjacent lot. Full bar service.

Much as I hate to have to knock a restaurant that produces some of the best Chinese food in town, I find it infuriating that the restaurant responds to its enormous success by jamming diners in too tightly, treating them rudely and leaving the dining room unkempt. If you glance at the carpet under your feet you might lose your appetite. If every meal were like my dim sum brunch -- a parade of doughy, dry dumplings and tasteless beef with rice noodles, saved only by flaky scallion puffs and crisp twist rolls like long doughnuts -- I could happily dismiss the restaurant. But no other restaurant except Rockville's Szechuan and Hunan seasons its fiery dishes with such complexity, fries its crisp beef properly so that it is crunch straight through and both sweet and hot, as well as irresistable. Szechuan's long menu invites planning returns for three kinds of frog legs, fresh asparagus or cauliflower seven ways, cuttlefish and casseroles. Last year the kitchen seemed to be sinking into disarray along with the dining room. But except for dim sum, the brilliant touch has returned. The timing is precise to preserve juiciness and crispness. No starchiness or greasiness mar the sauces, which are just a light wash over the beef or shrimp. And the seasonings blend into a tease of ginger, garlic, pepper, soy, black bean and scallion that somehow does not repeat its emphasis from dish to dish. Start with chicken and abalone soup, try the spiced cold meats or fish, continue to peppery Szechuan or Hunan specialties, quenching the fire with yung chow fried rice. And hope that eventually the management will feel secure enough financially to hire more dining room staff, take out a few of the seats and vacuum the carpet more regularly. Szechuan and Hunan 1776 E. Jefferson St., Rockville. 770-5020. L $2.45-$3.25, D $4.50-$8.95. L daily ex Sun. MC, V. Reservations suggested for parties of five or more. Parking lot. Full bar service.

One of the dining mysteries of the year is why mediocre Chinese restaurants in Montgomery County have lines to the door while Szechuan and Hunan, a restaurant with some of the most refined and talented cooking in any of Washington's Chinese restaurants, has empty tables. Even if the cooking were not so excellent, the restaurant would stand out among its competitors for the space allowed each diner, for the attractive and comfortable room, for the eager and attentive service. Prices are reasonable. And above all, the food is excellent. Skip the ordinary appetizers and fire your taste buds with bung bung chicken, the fiery hot sauce thinner than usual, with just a slight peanut flavor. Camphor-and-tea-smoked duck is a superlative rendition, the fat-free skin crisp and darkly lacquered, the meat spicy and firm, with a fresh taste and texture. If you like sweetness and fire in your food, sample the crisp beef, the shreds of meat fried several times to turn them crunchy straight through, tossed with bright carrot shreds and a very peppery sugar glaze. Only the downtown Szechuan rstaurant can make a dish to compare with this. House special fish Szechuan-style is fresh and cooked precisely, with a hot dark sauce tangy with black beans. Hot dishes are the memorable ones here, and the kitchen will make them as hot or mild as you like. Their sauces are intricate, intriguing in flavor rather than simply hot. This is a restaurant for venturing into pungency. Szechuan and Hunan Taste 1431-1433 Center St., McLean. 790-1910. L $1.95-$3.25, D $3.55-$7.15. Open daily. MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking lot. Full bar service.

Ten years ago such a restaurant, with its shopworn silk hangings and rows of booths, its efficient but incommunicative waiters and medium-size moderate menu, would have been serving mostly egg rolls and won ton soup and egg foo yung. Nowadays such restaurants serve dan dan noodles and firecracker shrimp and double-cooked pork. Szechuan has become commonplace. And those dishes are pretty good at Szechuan and Hunan, though the cooking is less reliable than one would like. Start with Szechuan and Hunan appetizers, for the dan dan noodles are excellent and the bung bung chicken only slightly less wonderful. Among main dishes, the rear page lists "our exclusive chef's specialties," which may not be accurate, but is a useful guide to ordering. Viceroy Tso's chicken is boneless chunks of meat coated in an interesting thick paste of ground peppers, garlic and more mysterious components. Sliced lobster with Chinese greens is a far less intriguing specialty, so try Mongolian stove, shredded duck or abalone, or wait for November to sample Lunar pork, the very salty ham stir-fried with onions and green peppers, a good dish if you are not offended by greasiness. But some days the kitchen seems to have been turned over to interlopers. And some dishes, like crisp duck Peking-style (its low price should have been a warning), are hardly attempts at serious cooking. Szechuan East 1805 H St. NW. 296-3588. L $3.75-$8.75, D $4.50-$12.95. Closed Sun. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking. Full bar service.

Through this restaurant's ups and downs, its carryout window has remained one of the handiest places to buy a picnic for lunch in the nearby park. And new management has given hope for regaining the restaurant's early excellence. The small rooms with glass-topped white tablecloths are a refreshing and serene variation on Chinese restaurant decor. The menu, though not as extensive as many Chinese restaurants, covers the familiar Szechuan range: kung pao chicken, double-cooked pork, beef or chicken Chengtu-style, bung bung chicken and dan dan noodles. So far, the cooking has not been upgraded with the new broom; ingredients are good, but the crisp beef has not been crisp, and different dishes taste too much the same. The service has been recently more efficient, though not yet attentive. The premises are clean once again. Servings are large and prices fair. Szechuan East seems on its way back, but is not yet worth seeking for more than a quick lunch or handy carryout. Szechuan Garden 7800 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda. 652-1700. L $2.25-$3.75, D 3.75-$9.95. Open daily. Reservations suggested. Public parking lot on Woodmont St. Full bar service.

A quiet oasis on Wisconsin Avenue, the Szechuan Garden has soft swivel chairs and soft lighting, which alone make it a happy find. The food is well-seasoned, making good use of ginger, garlic and scallions but only mildly administering hot peppers. Portions are plentiful, generous with meat or seafoods, and if the dishes tend to be starchy and greasy, at least their flavors are lively. It is not refined food but it is tasty food. Start with bon bon chicken. Peking duck with bean sauce is unusual, the meat too fatty and the skin not crisp, but the sweet-spicy sauce a good foil for the richness. Hunan beef and shredded pork with a hot garlic sauce need a touch of fire, but are reasonably good. Keeping in mind that everyday Chinese restaurants are a couple of rungs above everyday non-Chinese restaurants, this is one of those average, decent, everyday Chinese restaurants. Szechuan Mandarin House 11220 Georgia Ave., Wheaton. 933-4545. L $2.45-$2.75, D $3.25-$7.25. L daily ex Sun, D daily. MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking lot. Beer and wine only.

Although it could probably survive on the overflow from the Tung Bor down the street, Szechuan Mandarin House deserves attention on its own as a plesant little restaurant with a friendly couple bustling to serve the tables themselves, having decorated the place with restrained metallic wallpaper and bamboo accents. The menu is also restrained in length, being a mix of Cantonese, Mandarin and Szechuan dishes. Ordering should emphasize the Mandarin, for Szechuan dishes -- fishy frozen whole fish, dust-dry crisp duck -- can be disastrous, while moo shi pork has been meaty and savory, sizzling rice an attractively cooked melange. Appetizers are not above average, and blandness creeps in here and there. But the most rewarding dish on the menu -- if you like peppery heat -- is Hunan shredded beef, the strips of meat stir-fried with scallions, green peppers and ginger in a dark, pungent near-glaze. So Szechuan Mandarin House is a nice little neighborhood restaurant of modest accomplishments and occasional sizzle. Szechuna Peking 7944 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda. 652-6460. L $2.25-$2.75, D $3.50-$7.50. Open daily. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted only on Fri, Sat. Parking lot in rear. Full bar service.

Skillful cooking and seasoning could warrant this being considered one of the fine Szechuan restaurants if the sauces were not so starchy and did not swamp the foods they were meant to merely moisten. The menu is three pages of the usual Chinese offerings, and the booth-lined room is standard. But the food leaps above the standard, though each dish has some annoying flaw. Fine-dumplings, zesty in their seasoning and suave in their dough wrap, were served burned. Beef with hot garlic sauce tasted appealingly sweet and hot, but floated in a cornstarch sea. The sauce on the whole fish in hot bean sauce was a wonderful hash of ground meat, black beans, scallions, hot peppers and bean paste, but the fish itself was not good enough to deserve it. Chef's shrimp and bon bon chicken escaped problems. Still, Szechuan Peking is worth keeping on your list for when you are in the neighborhood. Tai Tung 622 H St. NW. 737-1462. L $2.50-$5, D $3.25-$6. Open daily. Ae, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Street parking. Full bar service.

Once my favorite quick-service hole-in-the-wall Chinatown restaurant, Tai Tung has sunk into a swamp of mushy underseasoned Chinese hash with not much to recommend the plate. One dish, however, remains a value too good to ignore. Young chew wor mein, the small size at $4.75, is a meal large enough for two. While it is primarily noodles and flavorless soup, it is packed with chunks of roast pork, large shrimp, squid, chicken, scallops, snow peas, water chestnuts, straw mushrooms and whatver else the kitchen happens to have. With a dash of soy sauce and whatever seasoning you can find around the table, it is very good eating for the money. Trudie Ball's Empress 1018 Vermont Ave. NW. 737-2324. L $3.25-$4.25, D $3.50-$12. Open daily. Ae, cb, d, mc, v. Reservations accepted. Commercial parking lot across the street. Full bar service.

This long-prominent Chinese restaurant is revamping its decor and kitchen staff, but on my last two visits, neither change had yet borne fruit. The tables are close and the environment hectic. The service is simply serviceable. The restaurant's history is implied on the menu, where many dishes are designated as being served in Washington for the first time. So the Empress has been a leader, though a leader that has lately fallen behind. Shrimp with hot garlic sauce is the best of the dishes I have tried in recent months, the dark sauce not very hot, but sparkling with strong flavors: vinegar, scallions, ginger. Otherwise, dishes have been plagued by blandness, overstarched sauces, beef cut so thin that it nearly disintegrated, and oil slicks on the surface of sauces. Peking duck has been fatty, its meat dried out and clumsily sliced. The Empress seems to have grown worse in its attempt to upgrade, but maybe its current flaws are just the throes of change. tung Bor 11154 Georgia Ave., Wheaton. 933-3687. L $3.50-$4.75, D $4.50-$11. Closed Mon. MC, V. Reservations not accepted for Sat. Sun. lunch. Parking lot. Full bar service.

Never wavering from its place at the top of the dim sum honors, Tung Bor is deservedly jam-packed for weekend lunches of dozens of dim sum to be chosen from rolling carts. Weekdays the same variety can be ordered from menus, and any day the delicacy of the doughs, the savoriness of the fillings, the skill in the frying are unsurpassed locally. The spring rolls are crisp and beefy. Pan-fried shrimp and pork turnovers burst with flavor. Shu mai, har gow, turnip cakes, taro balls, wonton soup, custard tarts -- 10 kinds of duck, seven kinds of bean curd, 18 noodle and fried rice preparations -- some wonderful cooking can be found. Appetizer trays are more beatifully and generously presented than usual. Hot-and-sour soup is impeccable. Scallops are formed into cakes with ground shrimp and panfried, a superb dish if their black bean sauce were less starchy. Steamed chicken here is a succulent example of the art of steaming. Chow foon with beef is meaty and well-seasoned. The cooking is expert; when there are flaws, they are usually errors in underseasoning, not being sufficiently bold. But the menu is highly ambitious, the service is enthusiastic, and Tung Bor usually fulfills high expectations. Yenching Palace 3524 Connecticut Ave., NW. 362-8200. L $2.50-$3.75, D $4-$9. Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC V. Reservations suggested. Parking lot in rear. Full bar service.

A Jekyll and Hyde among Chinese restaurants, Yenching Palace serves Washington some of the best Chinese food -- and some of the most pedestrian. At one dinner, for instance, the Peking duck was delectable, golden in color and crisp, fat-free and handsomely sliced. None better had been seen in Washington. Furthermore, the Hunan beef was thick, juicy and tender, set on a bed of crunchy and well-oiled watercress, ladled with a very hot and tangy dark sauce; it was irresistible. The moo shi pork was fine, with excellent paper-thin pancakes. But the sizzling rice shrimp had small dry shrimp swimming in a sea of sweet tomatoey sauce with soggy crusts of rice, and sweet-and-sour pork had more crust than meat. Appetizers here can happily be missed, except perhaps the meat dumplings. If you order right, a meal in this '50s opulence can be splendid. Yenching Palace of Alexandria 905 N. Washington St., Alexandria. 836-3200. L $2.95-$5.75, D $4-$9. Open daily. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking lot. Full bar service.

Although the menu is the same as the intown Yenching Palace, and the space as generous, the cooking does not achieve the same highs. Inconsistency plagues this kitchen, too, for one day everything might be bright, crisp and subtle, another day soggy and drab. Best bets, as at the District branch, are Yuling or Peking duck and Hunan beef. As for the more delicately seasoned dishes, they stumble into blandness. One of the assets of this Yenching Palace, besides a comfortable lounge, is the hospitable service; maybe that is because it is the Southern branch.