{sstar}{sstar} (2 stars) China Star

In Fair City Mall, 9600-G Main St. (near Pickett Road), Fairfax. 703-323-8822

Open: for lunch daily 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 4 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 4 to 11 p.m. MC, V. No reservations accepted Friday and Saturday nights. No smoking. Parking lot. Prices: appetizers 95 cents to $6.95; lunch entrees $4.25 to $13.95; dinner entrees $6.25 to $13.95. Full dinner with beer, tax and tip about $25 per person.

At first sight, people who frequent local Chinese restaurants will probably peg China Star as someplace they already know all too well.

I know I did.

Squeezed into a corner of a sprawling mall, the small dining room, with its tightly packed tables, could pass for any of a dozen other spots; with the exception of a lone mural -- a dream version of the Great Wall -- and a chandelier suspended from the ceiling, the restaurant seems more practical than pretty. Typically, a few customers are standing in the foyer waiting to pick up food they've ordered from the numbered dishes on the carryout menu.

Once they taste the food, however, those people who thought they knew what to expect of China Star are apt to be proven wrong.

I know I was.

"Try this," a waiter instructs as he drops a dish of pickled vegetables on the table. Just as I'm about to tell him that my dinner companion and I haven't ordered it, he adds, "It's free." Munching on the crunchy and spicy welcome, we scan the plastic-bound menus in our hands. The document is long and rambling, beginning with a page of six or so choices in (uh-oh) Chinese script and continuing on with dim sum, entrees, "home style" entrees and lunch combinations. Then come two pages of dishes that suggest the kitchen is pandering to Americanized palates, with beef teriyaki, chicken noodle soup, even a few steamed items designated "light"; and while parents may be happy to see kids' meals offered, it's a little unnerving in a Chinese restaurant to see it include french fries. It takes a few moments to sort through all these possibilities, but I'm armed with a positive report from a Chinese acquaintance ("If you like it hot . . . ") and some firsthand eavesdropping. "There are two chefs in the kitchen," I hear a manager tell a group of diners sitting near me. "One of them prepares only Sichuan." That's my cue to brace for an onslaught of bold spicing and plenty of fire: Garlic, ginger, chilies and peppercorns rank among the ingredients that fuel this regional style, known as China's "Western" school of cooking. Happily, China Star doesn't hold back. Whether it's an appetizer of thin slices of cold beef, fragrant with five-spice powder and slicked with chili oil, or an entree of crumbled pork tossed with salty-sour green beans and roasted red chili peppers, these are flavors as big and brassy as a Sousa march. Yet the heat isn't so searing that you can't appreciate the nuances of everything else that has gone into the recipes.

Unlike some other Chinese eateries, China Star doesn't wheel out its dim sum on carts. Instead, customers order off the menu as they would any other course. Focus on the starches, several of which are uncommonly good. "Baby wontons" are slippery white noodles with a soft center knot of well-seasoned pork served in a soup bowl full of clear and appealing chicken broth and glistening with chili oil. No matter how many of these wontons you eat, you will want another. The kitchen also makes scallion "pancakes" that are anything but flat; they're golden puffs the size of small balloons, hot, crisp and swollen, at least until you tear into them, releasing a cloud of steam, and they collapse. A bit of scallion pancake makes an excellent foil to all the hot notes you are likely to encounter (as does a bit of rice between bites, veteran hotheads will advise you). Sesame-flecked pumpkin cakes, three to a plate, are chewy and gelatinous, sort of like shrimp toast without the seafood, and more of an acquired taste. From the opening page of appetizers come boiled peanuts, deliciously seasoned with either hot bean paste or pungent five-spice powder; thin slices of tripe spiked with chili oil; and morsels of diced rabbit, similarly spiked but so bony you quickly give up trying to extract every speck of meat.

There are other restaurants in the area named China Star, but they are unrelated to this establishment in Fair City Mall, which opened two years ago and caters to a predominantly Asian clientele. Busy as the restaurant can get, the staff does a laudable job of translating whatever appears in Chinese and helping customers compose a meal from the myriad options. Manager John Chen, a frequent presence -- look for the guy with the phone cord dangling from one ear -- says that the dishes described in Chinese are seasonal specials. Most recently, they have included fried tilapia and a restorative soup of oxtail with chunks of white radish.

It pays to pipe up. Whenever I've asked, suggestions from the servers have translated into memorable dinners. One recommendation, salt-and-pepper eggplant, came from the "home style" category: oval slices of eggplant dipped in batter, fried to an airy crisp state and showered with matchsticks of ginger, sliced garlic and more. Addictive (and better after it cools down some). A second tip, "spicy emperor duck," was a bubbling cauldron of duck pieces, rich with the flavor of sweetly spiced brown sauce and rounded out with whole mushrooms and fresh cilantro. It's listed under "house special" on the menu, as are whole steamed flounder (moist and delicate) and "crystal shrimp," a generous heap of pearly seafood with a ginger-shocked sauce whose pale complexion belies its sublime flavor. A request for more vegetables, meanwhile, yielded a steaming plate of pale green yu choy, the stems of which taste like a mild broccoli, mixed with slivers of garlic. And so it went, meal after meal. My biggest problem with China Star is the endless choices. You could come here every day for months and never repeat an entree.

Eating such carefully prepared food makes me want to stop my neighbor from ordering beef with broccoli, which he can get at any Chinese restaurant, and urge him to give something less common a whirl. In my experience here, standards such as lo mein with pork are just that, standard-issue. To experience the best of China Star, you'll simply have to take some heat.

Ask Tom

Fresh from visiting "a popular restaurant in Rehoboth," Julie Schapire of Washington sent me an e-mail reminding groups of diners to check their bills carefully. Schapire's husband had added an 18 percent gratuity to a restaurant tab for seven people, she reported, only to discover later that the bill had already included a tip. While the restaurant immediately gave her a refund of the extra tip when she called to ask for it, "I don't think that the waitress should have just accepted the extra and obviously excessive tip," she wrote, pointing out that the line for adding tips on the bill was blank when her husband got it. A simple "gratuity included" clearly written on the bill would have saved everyone involved the bother.

Got a dining question? Send your thoughts, wishes and, yes, even gripes to asktom@washpost.com or to Ask Tom, The Washington Post Magazine, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Please include daytime telephone number.