THE AMERICAN AMBER GRAIN, FRUITED PLAIN & SHINING SEA COMPANY INC.

Take a cue from the homey American arts-and-crafts look of this tiny store, for the best of the foods are home-style Americana such as chili, pizza, macaroni and cheese, chocolate chip cookies and chocolate cake. Nothing gets really trendy -- I didn't see any goat cheese or pesto or sun-dried tomatoes -- and the more familiar it is, the more delicious it is likely to be. The stir-fried beef, for instance, was gluey, though its flavor was fine; in contrast, a gutsy, yeasty, crunchy pizza and the piquant chili are sensational. Salads are just fine, the pasta salad flavorful without being overdosed with herbs or vinegar as too many are. The macaroni and cheese was oddly sweet but creamy; chicken salad and turkey salad may be teamed with fruit and nuts, but are down-to-earth; and potato salad wasn't as good as homemade but wasn't as bad as deli-style. As for desserts, Amber Grain is wonderful with chocolate, whether layer cake, fudgy marquise or old-fashioned brownies. The last pie I tasted was leaden, and creamy cakes were heavyweights. The selection is narrower than at the other fancy carryouts, but there certainly is some good home cooking. 2313 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 333-4951. Carryout: $5-$25.99. Mon-Fri 8 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sat 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Closed Sun. AE, MC, V. Delivery: Mon-Sat 6 a.m.-9 p.m.; $100 minimum; 30-mile radius; checks or cash. AMERICAN CAFE

Kinetic restaurants for people on the go, American Cafes are naturals for carryout. Although this chain of restaurant-markets has announced that it is changing ownership, we have found that its choices are wide and interesting. More salads and entrees have been added this year, but the old faithfuls are still worth seeking: sesame noodles, faintly spicy and oil-slick; seafood salad with bright crunch of vegetables and capers and a fresh taste to the supple shrimp and scallops; chicken salad, now updated with water chestnuts. The pasta with pesto is a good version, but I have found fault with dilled new potato salad (too tart) and broccoli salad with garlic (a creamy dullness). As for more substantial main dishes, they are expensive. The mustard chicken with a bitter crumb coating was nearly $5, as was the rather good mushroom lasagna; a flimsy soggy bar pizza was $2 and was not as enticing. Empanadas are better, thickly meaty, chili-spiked but a little pasty. The markets are lively places to shop for carryout meals, with plenty of condiments and snacks to accessorize a picnic. And some of the desserts -- notably chocolate mud pie, brownies and the new chocolate cheesecake -- are what you really wish you had made into a meal. On a busy day the markets can get slow and stumbling, but the staff tends to be so pleasant and enthusiastic that your time will be cheerfully spent. 227 Massachusetts Ave. NE. 547-8504. 1211 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 337-3600. 5252 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 363-5400. National Place, 13th and F streets NW. 737-5153. Fair Oaks Mall, 352-0201. 8601 Westwood Center Dr., Vienna. 790-8004. Hours, services and prices vary from store to store. ANITA'S

The menu calls it "New Mexico Style Mexican Food," but it's not -- it's better than the food I found in New Mexico this year. This little storefront restaurant in Vienna (with a rear entrance for carryout) has a way with seasoning that backs up the heat with plenty of flavor and tang. The green sauce is good and the red sauce is sensational. The menu lists 20 different mix-and-match dinners plus a la carte tacos, chalupas, enchiladas, rellenos, salads and even a "Mexican Pizza" on a deep-fried tortilla. The best dish of all, though, appears only occasionally: carne adovada is a zingy red-sauced stewed pork, not to be missed.

By the time you get your enchiladas home, they may be mushy, and the fried foods -- taquitos, tacos and chalupas -- don't take too well to hanging around. Still, for around $5 you can eat quite well; for $7 you can feast. 147 W. Maple Ave., Vienna. 938-0888. No credit cards. Carryout: $1.25-$5.50. Mon-Thurs 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Fri, Sat 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Sun noon-9 p.m. (Other locations: 10880 Lee Hwy., Fairfax. 385-2965. 9278-A Old Keene Mill Rd., Burke. 455-3466.) BACCHUS

I didn't know as good a place to eat hummos, baba ghanouj and kebabs as Bacchus, a Lebanese restaurant with an extraordinary kitchen. But now I have found I can eat them at home, for Bacchus will pack most of its food for carrying out. The problem is what to order: A whole mezze -- appetizer array of meat- and-nut-topped Special Hummos, homemade fiery sausages and meaty, tart stuffed grape leaves plus about a dozen other choices? Or the fragrant and tender shish kebab or the lemony, moist chicken kebab with buttery rice-and-noodle pilaf? Whatever Bacchus does is uniquely good; the hummos is balanced in its seasoning, light and velvety; the baba ghanouj is fresh and zesty; the grape leaves are densely flavored but light in texture. Portions are plentiful, but it is compelling enough food that you'd be wise to order generously anyway. 1827 Jefferson Place NW. 785-0734. AE, MC, V. Carryout: $8.25-$11.25. Mon-Fri noon-2 p.m., 6 p.m.-10 p.m. Carryout orders must be phoned in one day in advance. BENTLEY'S

One thing you can count on at Bentley's Filling Station is that it will fill you up. Portions are gigantic: A cold platter of oriental chicken -- breast of chicken atop water chestnuts, snow peas, mushrooms and mandarin oranges -- looked as if a whole can of water chestnuts and oranges had been devoted to each portion. Aside from quantity, the quality and concepts vary considerably. Several dishes were sweet enough to border on dessert; even rum buns -- very good ones that would make a perfect breakfast bread -- accompanied these dishes. Quiche may have been edged out of fashion, but eccentric Bentley's teams it with homemade, appropriately lumpy mashed potatoes that are much better than the rubbery, bland quiche. The plain old standbys like stuffed peppers are fine here, and transport well; chicken salad is an imposing platter with lots of carrots, celery and avocado, but also lots more mayonnaise than it needs. Save space for dessert: a truly fine very creamy cheesecake. 7323 Baltimore Blvd., College Park. 277-8898. AE, D, MC, V. Carryout: $3.85-$12.95. Mon-Thurs 11 a.m.-11:30 p.m.; Fri, Sat 11 a.m.-1:30 a.m.; Sun 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. BETHEL

This Ethiopian carryout would be a great find and certainly a bargain if only it would bring its injera (fermented pancakes) to room temperature before packing them. The plastic boxes of carryout dinners are lined with an injera, filled in with stews and meats and vegetables, then topped with several more injera folded like napkins, which you use instead of silverware to scoop up the food. They have been so icy, though, that they cooled the entire dinner. That aside, you can sample some very good and quite fiery Ethiopian food here, peppered stews of beef, chicken, vegetables and such, or beef tips saute'ed with chilies, or vegetarian entrees. And each is accompanied by a couple of side dishes -- a tart vinegared lentil pure'e, cabbage stew or carrot me'lange. It is a lot of food for the money. Just ask for your injera warmed or packed separately. 2452 18th St. NW. 234-7747. No credit cards. Carryout: $2.50-$5.50. Mon-Thurs 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri 9 a.m.-6 p.m. BITTERSWEET

The menus of "gourmet carryouts" these days are as predictable as the menus of fast-food restaurants. There's chicken salad, there's pasta salad with pesto and there are sesame noodles. And so it is at Bittersweet, only the chicken salad is mushy and over- whelmed with garlic, the pasta with pesto edges into gumminess and the sesame noodles are fine, but it is hard to find a bad sesame noodle. I also tried a beef stew that was devoid of any seasoning. And the apples in a waldorf salad were mushy. Best of the things I tried were pecan squares, but in good conscience I can't recommend that as the mainstay of your meal. 103 N. Alfred St., Alexandria. 549-2708. AE, MC, V. Carryout: $6.50-$9.25. Mon-Sat 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Closed Sun. Delivery: Mon-Sat 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Closed Sun. Fee varies. CAFE LA RUCHE (White Flint)

Ten dishes form the "gourmetisserie" at La Ruche, from pa te' to curried mussels to shrimp tarragon to vegetable and chicken salads. That shouldn't be too much for one kitchen to cope with, but it seems to be. My curried mussels were curried noodles with one lonely bit of mussel. "Not Just Tuna & Noodles" turned out to be "not even tuna and noodles" -- just noodles with bits of green pepper and maybe a hint of tuna. Likewise, there was a lot more tomato than palm in the heart of palm salad, and not even much poivre vert in the pa te' au poivre vert. Want to hear more complaints? The chicken almondine and turkey salad were almost identical. In all, the food is disappointing and not nearly as varied as the descriptions imply. 11305 Rockville Pike, White Flint Mall. 468-1155. MC, V. Carryout: $2.95-$10.25. Daily 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. CAPTAIN DAYS

This l ttle seafood restaurant serves enormous platters of fish complete with a fine buttery fresh vegetable me'lange and creamy, crunchy coleslaw for $8 to $10. There are also gigantic portions of seafood salad with vegetable accompaniments, for $6, and bacon-wrapped barbecued shrimp platters with four large shrimp for $4.25. The catch is that the last fish fillets I tried were past their prime and sooty, more than smoky, from their mesquite grilling. The seafood salad was a better choice, with plenty of squid, bay scallops and shrimp in a mild vinaigrette, though over- whelmed by dried herbs. The shrimp are also overwhelmed, by a smoky tomatoey barbecue sauce, but they make a zesty lunch nevertheless. You might reduce your risks by inquiring about which fish are freshest, in order to enhance your chances of getting good food along with your good prices. 1133 (Rear) 18th St. NW. 296-1133. AE, MC, V. Carryout: $4.95-$12.95. Mon-Fri 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sat 4 p.m.-11 p.m. Closed Sun. C. F. FOLKS

Monday is red beans and rice day; Fridays there is bouillabaisse. C. F. Folks is the tiniest world tour in town, with daily specials from Tuesday's Tex-Mex burritos and fajitas to Wednesday's Indian curry to Friday's Middle Eastern platter. There are also different soups each day -- spicy conch chowder on Thursday, clam with saffron or with carrots and cognac on Friday. And every day there are sandwiches -- corned beef or pastrami in numerous variations, walnut tuna, almond chicken, turkey, ham, cheese. There are salad platters and daily variations on the pasta salad, plus house cakes. C. F. Folks is one of those "best-kept secrets" where prices are low, quality and imagination are high, and there is always some ambitious surprise on the mostly sandwich menu. 1225 19th St. NW. 293-0162. No credit cards. Carryout: $3.25-$6.75. Mon-Fri 11:45 a.m.-3 p.m. Closed Sat, Sun. Delivery available Mon-Fri; call for rates and times. CHARLES GOURMET

Even to buy the salads at Charles Gourmet, I had to overcome their initial impression. Rows of them filling stainless-steel compartments in the display case looked uniformly tired and dried out, though plentiful, and the seafood salad was largely those bright orange "sea legs." Sure enough, the potato salad and egg salad tasted sour and the pasta salad was like tomato juice poured over spiral noodles. The most innocuous dish I found was moussaka, which was hardly seasoned but creamy and meaty. And once we got past the strong fishy smell of smoked salmon quiche with three cheeses, it was agreeable enough, with lots of oozy cheese but a soggy, unflaky crust. In all, though, it seemed a pity for that volume of cooking to produce so little pleasure. 4860 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda. 656-1100. MC, V. Carryout: $2.99-$6.50. Mon-Fri 7:30 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sat, Sun 7:30 a.m.-7 p.m CHELA'S

This is the kind of carryout you expect to love. Just off Wisconsin Avenue is a tiny house with a big, bold awning and hand-painted sign that makes you think you've wandered into the Mexican countryside. And the family running Chela's couldn't be more friendly. Furthermore, the prices for the 18 combination platters peak at $5.50. Actually, I loved everything but the food, most of which had sat on a steam table until whatever savor it had had evaporated. The tortillas were flabby, and the sauces had a glossy starchiness that looked like excess cornstarch. Whatever didn't taste acrid tasted bland. If you lower your sights, you could find the tacos acceptable for their crispness, the chalupas likewise -- and cheap as well. "No frozen food stuff. We start from scratch," says the menu. What it doesn't say is how long ago scratch was before the food hit the steam table. 4708 Highland Ave., Bethesda. 654-7887. No credit cards. Carryout: $3.25-$5.50. Mon-Fri 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat 11:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Closed Sun. COLUMBIA PLAZA GOURMET

The prize for the most improved carryout readily goes to Columbia Plaza Gourmet. The carryout case has a wide assortment, from Middle Eastern to Far Eastern to totally Western, and you can find four or five kinds of chicken salads, even more vegetable and pasta salads, and a soup-to-nuts dinner menu, which changes daily. The best of the foods I tasted were nonmeat dishes: a crunchy, sweet-tangy tabouleh; an unusual cheese pie that was as creamy as cheesecake but savory rather than sweet; dark, slick and peppery sesame noodles; and artichoke hearts that were not made from fresh artichokes but had more flavor and better texture than all the rest I have found in town. For dessert was a Saxon pudding, as light as a souffle', at the same time tart and sweet. Not so good were those chicken salads, a stringy and chewy glazed duck, zesty but dry Basque rice salad, dreary creamed pasta and pasty tabouleh. And baked goods were pretty dull. The store's weakest link was that the staff didn't know what several of the dishes were or whether they were to be served cold or hot. The value of Columbia Plaza lies not specifically in the cooking, though, but in the vast variety. Besides produce counters, frozen and canned goods, a chocolate department, cheeses and impressive fresh fish and meat counters, there is a large deli with its own salads and with freshly cooked turkey breast, roast beef, corned beef and roast pork, plus house- made gravlax and cream cheese spreads. If you live in the neighborhood -- Foggy Bottom, Georgetown or Dupont Circle -- the store will deliver a dinner or soup or salad, entree and two vegetables to your door for $10. 538 23rd St. NW. 887-8240. AE, C, MC, V. Carryout: $3.25-$5. Mon-Fri 7:30 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sat 9 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sun 9 a.m.-5 p.m. CRISFIELD

The good news is that you can carry out your dinner from Crisfield's rather than wait in line. The bad news is that some of the food doesn't carry out well. Oysters and clams on the half-shell are easy if you are taking them right home for dinner. And the soups certainly hold, though I find both the seafood bisque and clam chowder unappealingly thickened. The excellent french fries tasted greasy and limp a half-hour after I'd picked them up, and the fried seafoods fared no better. But order anything prepared with crab -- imperial, norfolk, crab-topped fish -- and you will find it sweetly fresh and beautifully prepared (though I think the crab cakes need to be lighter and made with lump rather than shredded crab). Oysters are also fine, but I'd skip shrimp, lobster and scallops, and would concentrate on local fish, such as flounder and sea bass. Even with fish fillets, I found some past their prime in my carryout dinner. I'd also forgo the pecan pie. 8012 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. 589-1306. No credit cards. Carryout: $8-$19; Tues-Thurs 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri, Sat 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun noon-9:30 p.m. DAHLIA'S

The choices at Dahlia's are limited, but the place has definite assets. First, it will deliver free within three blocks with a minimum order of $20; second, the staff is as pleasant and helpful as you could wish; and third, there is some good food among those limited offerings. I found four chicken salads, two of which were fruity -- one with dates and nuts, the other with raisins and curry -- and particularly good. Vegetable salads were less noteworthy but fresh and good enough; sesame noodles were just right, and beef-broccoli salad was of high quality. Curried shrimp (though more accurately curried rice with shrimp) showed the same seasoning flair that made the chicken salads so good. I'd skip the chili -- too salty and intense, without much character. And the pastries were all duds, a combination of heavy- handedness to start and being kept too long as well. But Dahlia constructs interesting sandwiches, using homemade flavored mayonnaises. And the menu promises more interesting possibilities than I found on my visit. 1134 19th St. NW. 429-9307. No credit cards. Carryout: $3.50-$6. Mon-Fri 7:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Closed Sat, Sun. Delivery: Mon-Fri 7:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. $20 minimum; $7 fee; 3-block radius. DUTCH TREAT

When your idea is a simple lunch, quickly acquired, but you seek a homemade quality as well, Dutch Treat carryout shops are just about right. Their menu is simple -- soup, salads and sandwiches, many prepacked but some made to order. And their prices are modest -- under $4 for a thickly slathered crab salad sandwich. Even more important, the food tastes as fresh as it does from a home kitchen. Soups are homemade, as are meat loaf, roast lamb or other daily special sandwich fillings, and so are salads such as potato, olive, shredded carrot with raisins and such. The refrigerator case offers deviled eggs and salad platters as well as little side dishes and a nice array of drinks. Don't expect too much of the fake-crab "sea legs" or tiny watery shrimp; this is everyday stuff, not high-style. Most charming of the fare is broodjes, sandwiches made on little soft Dutch rolls; with a soup and salad they make a lunch both light and varied. 1710 L St. NW. 296-3219. 818 15th St. NW. 682-0811. 1901 L St. NW. 223-9420. Hours and services vary among locations. EL POLLO PRIMO

This authentic Mexican fast-food restaurant is working on an authentically sound idea: For under $3 you can get two pieces of grilled chicken, three tortillas, salsa and a couple of side dishes, such as potato salad, coleslaw, kidney beans or red rice. You can also buy a whole chicken cut up, or enough for a party. The chicken itself is golden and mildy aromatic from its marinade, juicy and crisp- skinned from its charcoal grilling. You are supposed to pull the chicken off the bones and wrap it in tortilla with salsa, but I liked the chicken all by itself, though it would happily take to more seasoning. Best of the side dishes was the beans, though all were agreeable. If this is the first of an influx of grilled chicken restaurants, it is a trend I will welcome. For carryout, though, a caveat: the chicken tastes best right off the grill. It can't be successfully revived by reheating after it's visited your refrigerator. 1052 Rockville Pike. 251-9808. No credit cards. Carryout: $2.75-$9.25. Daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Delivery: Daily 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; no charge for orders of $10 or more; 2-mile radius. EVERYDAY GOURMET

Much of the charm in this cafe-carryout is in the place itself: nice people enthusiastically serving their homemade food. So you'd do best to eat there and soak up Takoma Park charm. Taking the food out, I had to face the fact that the food wasn't all that good. Lasagna: heavy and dry, with cottage cheese instead of ricotta. Chicken salad: mushy. Cheesecake: grainy. There were some impressive looking whole-grain breads, and the oatmeal cookies were sensational (better than the sugary coconut macaroons and doughy chocolate cookies). The bread pudding with whiskey sauce was authentically good comfort food, and the knishes brought from New York are next best to Zabar's. The omelet squares -- airy egg puffs topped with the likes of sun-dried tomatoes -- make a good light entree, and if the potato salad is fresh it can be wonderful, sparked with olives and dill. But beware of dried-out tortellini salad and cakes that have been kept too long; Everyday Gourmet is not at its best every day, but could probably be a good dinner source on the right day. 6923 Laurel Ave., Takoma Park. 270-2270. No credit cards. Carryout: $2.49-$5.99. Mon-Fri 9 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sat 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sun 10 a.m.-2 p.m. FEDORA CAFE

Singles bar/restaurant/ carryout is a hot combination these days, and Fedora, like Oscar Taylor, follows in the mold. Here you can order anything from the menu to go, but particular carryout features are modish pizzas, sandwiches on whole wheat croissants, a few salads and pastries. Check the pizza schedule -- I missed the proper hour, so my sample was limited to chicken-pesto salad, seafood-tortellini salad, vegetable and fruit salads and dessert. I could have happily started and ended with dessert here, for the three tortes were outstanding. The chocolate truffle was excellent fudge with whipped cream. The chocolate nut torte tasted intensely of both and was lightly bound, frosted with a fudgy glaze. And mocha torte was a deeply flavored and buttery series of layers. The salads are fine -- not memorable, but of good quality, the chicken in big juicy pieces, the tortellini teamed with moist little seafood bits, the julienned peppers well oiled and tangy, the carrots and jicama too sweet but fresh and crisp. There was also a luxuriant tropical fruit salad. In fact, my only real complaint was the sandwich; the whole wheat croissant was only faintly wheaty but too much bread for its chicken- bacon-avocado filling. In all, Fedora Cafe is trying hard and knows how to produce quality. 8521 Leesburg Pike, Vienna. 556-0100. AE, D, MC, V, CB. Carryout: $4-$16. Daily 11 a.m.-1:30 a.m. FETE ACCOMPLIE LTD.

Even from the window Fe te Accomplie looks delicious. Baskets of homemade breads identify this as a place where some serious cooking is done. Inside, the cases are filled with dozens of main dishes, vegetables and salads. It is a good place to buy a hot main dish for dinner: lamb stew with flageolets, for instance, or a paella that holds its excellence through refrigerating and reheating. Some things don't translate well in the reheating, though: Chicken breast in pesto stuffed with sun-dried tomatoes tasted a shadow of what it might have been. In all, though, Fe te Accomplie is a cut above nearly every carryout sampled. Its vegetable salads were well balanced; two kinds of potato salads were both fine examples of that dish; and pasta salad with salmon and asparagus was the lightest, freshest tasting and most appealing of the pastas I have found. Soups, too, were outstanding, whether a subtle creamy minted pea or pungent corn with chilies and coriander. And the salmon mousse is a classic. The flaws? A remarkably tasteless chicken salad and pies with crusts that lack flakiness. On the sweet side, the apple cupcakes are outlandishly good. 3714 Macomb St. NW. 363-9511. AE, MC, V. Carryout: $4.50-$7.50. Mon-Sat 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Closed Sun. Delivery: By special order; $12 fee. FOOD & CO.

It's the company part of Food & Co. that works best. This is a most attractive food shop, sparkling and orderly, with a few tables downstairs and more upstairs in case you just can't wait to eat. The display cases are compelling, with salads in vibrant colors, their meats and vegetable ingredients looking plump and fresh. The choice is wide -- from wild rice salad to couscous salad to smoked honey chicken or Moroccan chicken -- and the arrangements are imaginative. In addition to pa te's, salads, sandwiches and pastry- wrapped main dishes, there are take-home dinners such as chicken cordon bleu and sweetbreads and crab cannelloni. The pastries alone stretch nearly the length of the shop. This is food that looks just terrific, and to accompany it are cold drinks and special coffees.

The best of the foods I tasted were mushroom and spinach quiche, with a soft, eggy custard, and nutty pesto-sauced noodles. Those chicken salads, though, didn't live up to their looks. The Moroccan version was sour and not spicy; the honey chicken sweet but otherwise bland, with near-raw green beans. Mussel salad and potato salad were extremely tart; the couscous was hard and crunchy. Desserts were supersweet, heavy and soggy. You can find some good food at Food & Co., but its where- abouts are unpredictable, and at such high prices somebody needs to be carefully tasting every dish before it is released to represent this kitchen's ability. 1200 New Hampshire Ave. NW. 223-8070. MC, V. Carryout: $1.50-$15. Mon-Fri 8 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat 9 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sun 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Delivery: Same hours as for carryout; no minimum; fees vary. FURIN'S

What's homiest is best at this jaunty little Georgetown caterer-cafe'. The plain chicken salad -- not the curried or oriental one -- is simple and delicious, and the creamy chunky egg salad with olives is even better. I also wouldn't miss the homemade soft pretzels, which are big and yeasty and chewy. And here is a potato salad that you'd like to claim as your own. Among the more complicated dishes, a chicken with mushrooms and spinach wrapped in pastry was a large and wonderful hot entree. The pastry was flaky, the chicken had remained moist and flavorful, and the vegetables tasted sprightly rather than steamed.

Not all works so well here, though. Among the four hot chicken entrees was a cordon bleu that tasted gummy, salty and otherwise bland; and the empanada had the seasoning right but not the texture or amount of filling. The pasta salads tasted as if they had been made by another kitchen; the sesame noodles had a bitter, rancid taste. And the pastries I tried -- except for the chocolate croissants -- were dry and chewy. The selection of hot entrees is as large as the cold, and there are soups and deli items as well, so you could put together an interesting meal -- and you can have a full dinner delivered or eat lunch on the premises. But you must walk a narrow path to find what Furin's does well. The service is so pleasant and willing that I would at least ask to smell if not taste before I invested in a large portion. 2805 M St. NW. 965-1000. No credit cards. Carryout: $2.50-$6.50. Mon-Sat 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Closed Sun. (See Delivery section.) GIANT GOURMET (Rockville)

Giant Gourmet's carryout choices are probably more than you would like to know you have. You can get two kinds of potato salad in the "gourmet" section, or potato salad that looks factory-made in the deli section or prepackaged potato salad in the refrigerator cases. The same goes for the whole cooked chickens, from soggy-looking wrapped ones kept hot under heat lamps to fresher looking fare at the gourmet counter. It's a bit confusing. In any case, the gourmet section has an admirable variety of things to take home, though not necessarily of admirable quality. There are pasta salads from sesame noodles to pesto shells, a nice dark spicy applesauce, crunchy dilled cucumbers, baba ghanouj that was better than the achingly sour taramasalat. There are also plenty of heartier dishes: individual beef wellingtons at $16, stir-fried beef and pot roast, both with thick gloppy sauces, and a tame jambalaya. This is not the food of your dreams, but most of it was pleasant enough to provide dinner if not special-occasion food. The bakery, though, is another matter. It is weighted with cakes that have inches-thick mounds of whipped cream. Surely among those acres of pastries something is wonderful, but I wasn't tempted to investigate further. 12051 Rockville Pike, Rockville. 881-4541. No credit cards. Carryout: $1.50-$24 per pound. Mon-Sat 8 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun 8 a.m.-7 p.m. GIANT GOURMET -- SOMEPLACE SPECIAL (McLean)

Comparing this Giant Gourmet to Rockville's is like comparing Bloomingdale's to the Burlington Coat Factory. The food at the McLean branch is all upscale, and the cooking, in my experience, is better than at Rockville.

The major trend at Someplace Special is adding the finishing touches yourself, or buying components to construct a complex dish. Thus, the store sells homemade stocks and sauces -- veloute', barbecue sauce, brown sauce, meat stocks -- plus marinated kebabs to cook at home, stuffed uncooked roasts and chops. There are pastas in colors enough to fill a Crayola box, and sauces to match them. And in the finished dishes, there are dozens of salads and pa te's and cold entrees, dozens more of entrees and vegetables to reheat at home. Furthermore, the staff have been efficient and knowledgeable.

My favorite of the salads has been Texas caviar -- marinated black-eyed peas with diced peppers mild and hot. The taramasalata is as good as you would expect in a Middle Eastern restaurant, the potato salad is homey, the sesame noodles have plenty of flavor. There are representatives from every cuisine -- oriental chicken salad, tabouleh, two kinds of coleslaw. And hot dishes are nicely flavored, though they have their flaws -- corned beef and cabbage strudel was crisp and savory but oversalted, chicken and dumplings was gutsy comfort food but had hardly any chicken, and chicken with brie sauce was a sumptuous idea, but the chicken lost juiciness in the process.

Those are minor complaints, though, next to the major fact that Someplace Special has just about anything you might crave, in a version that is at least creditable. And it has lots of things you might not have even thought of craving. 12445 Chain Bridge Rd., McLean. 448-0800. AE, C, MC, V. Carryout: Prices vary. Mon-Thurs 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Fri, Sat 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Delivery: Daily 7 a.m.-8 p.m. $100 minimum order; $15 fee; 25-mile radius. HELGA'S

There are few enough places to get middle-European food that for the German sausage platter alone -- two kinds of blood sausage and another coarse smoked wurst with potatoes saute'ed in bacon and raw pickled red cabbage -- you should know Helga's. You can also find sauerbraten, goulash, weinerschnitzel and meat strudels on the menu if you hit it right. And the international dishes also tend to be appealing. Chicken Ursula was a very creamy mustard-and- caper-spiked chicken salad accompanied by supersweet but refreshing shredded carrot salad. Mexican beef was a zesty stew heavy with cumin but not too peppery for any taste. And pastas were similarly better than you might expect from finding such dishes on a German-Austrian menu. In all, this was interesting food, well prepared and garnished with fresh vegetables. It was expensive for such dishes as carryouts, but that's the price of ordering from a restaurant menu. 6710 Old Dominion Dr., McLean. 556-0780. AE, MC, V. Carryout: $4-$16.50. Mon-Thurs 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m.-9 p.m.; Fri 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m.; Sat 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m.; Sun 11 a.m.-3 p.m. ITALIA DELICATESSEN

You want mushrooms on your pizza? You get a thick blanket of whole baby mushrooms. You want sausage? The firm slices of sausage are fragrant and meaty. Furthermore, the pizza itself is a glory of thick, light, yeasty dough topped with plenty of cheese, then a very Italian chunky and herbed tomato sauce. This is some of Washington's most outstanding pizza, and reasonably priced. Italia also has daily specials -- a decent but unexciting tortellini in tomato sauce the day I tried it -- and exceptional subs, made with pungent Italian cold cuts and cheese, a light tang of dressing and good crusty rolls with some chew to them. Of course, you can also buy all the usual Italian deli items: meats, cheeses, sauces, pastas. As for hot food to go, Italia doesn't do a lot, but it does it remarkably well. 8662 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. 588-6999. No credit cards. Carryout: Prices start at $2.50. Mon-Sat 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Closed Sun. ITALIAN GOURMET

This friendly little store sells mostly sandwiches and packaged goods, but its refrigerator case holds pinwheeled pepperoni breads, its freezer case homemade pastas and the sauces to go with them. Compared with Vace's, for instance, those sauces are pallid -- the alfredo is starchy and bland -- and the pastas roughly made. As for deli items, there are sandwiches and a few salads -- decent pasta salad with pepperoni and vegetables, dreary seafood salads of tiny tasteless shrimp or crab shreds with too much celery. A submarine sandwich was short on meat and cheese, and those had little pizazz. The best of the offerings? A broad array of olives in every color, marinated artichokes and mushrooms and pickled vegetables. 505 Maple Ave. W., Vienna. 938-4141. MC, V. Carryout: $2.40-$4. Mon, Tues, Wed 10 a.m.-6:30 p.m.; Thurs, Fri 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sat 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sun 11 a.m.-3 p.m. JAMAICA JOE

With Cajun food so beloved, Jamaican can't be far behind. At its best it has that same density of flavor that hits your palate in waves and leaves you wanting to taste more of those sizzling combinations. And it is at its best at Jamaica Joe's. The curried goat should convince the wary that this is delicious meat, not weird stuff; also intriguing are "jerk" meats -- jerk chicken was smoky from its grilling and highly seasoned with anise. And rotis enclose curried meats and potatoes in outstandingly light thin whole wheat breads similar to Indian breads but large enough to wrap into a giant sandwich. It would be hard to choose among these Jamaican standbys, for each is teasingly good. All come with rice studded with red beans and a bit of salad, and you can add an authentic note with Red Stripe beer or ginger beer. 8573 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. 585-2545. No credit cards. Carryout: $3.50-$5.50. Mon-Sat 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Closed Sun. JERUSALEM

Mama Ayesha still holds court at the old original Calvert Cafe, but now her son has brought Arabic food to Falls Church at the Jerusalem Restaurant, which not only prepares food to carry out but offers free delivery within two miles on orders of $20 or more. You can get all the usual Arabic dips and salads: baba ghanouj, hummos, foul, tabouleh and Arabian salad, and loaves of pita come with them. The baba ghanouj is tangy and chunky, the felafel are spicy, and there are entrees that go well beyond kebabs. The main dish I would find difficult to pass up is shawirmah, strips of lamb marinated in oil and spices, and charcoal-grilled with onions and tomatoes. I also had hopes for musakhan, the marinated grilled chicken flattened and crisped and served on crisped pita. Here, though, it was soggy rather than crisp, vinegary rather than spicy and not even reminiscent of the glory that dish can achieve. Honeyed pastries showed some of the same flaws -- gummy nammoura and pale baklava rather than crisp, browned pastries. So Jerusalem has its ups and downs, but it shows sufficient authenticity and experience to warrant a try. 3815-B S. George Mason Dr. 845-1622. AE, C, D, MC, V. Carryout: $8.95-$9.95. Daily 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Delivery: Daily 6 p.m.-11 p.m.; $20 minimum; 2-mile radius.