{sstar}{sstar} (2 stars) Kanlaya Thai Cuisine

740 Sixth St. NW (near H Street). 202-393- 0088. www.kanlayathaicuisine.com

Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 4 to 10:30 p.m., Friday 4 to 11 p.m., Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. AE, D, MC, V. Smoking on outdoor patio only. Metro: Gallery Place-Chinatown. Prices: lunch appetizers $3.95 to $6.50, entrees $7.95 to $10.95; dinner appetizers $3.95 to $6.95, entrees $7.95 to $15.95. Full dinner with beer, tax and tip about $30 per person.

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{sstar}{sstar} ( 2 stars) Crystal Thai

in the Arlington Forest Shopping Center, 4819 N. First St. (near Park Drive), Arlington. 703-522-1311. www.crystalthai.com

Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 3 to 10:30 pm., Friday 3 to 11 p.m., Saturday noon to 11 p.m., Sunday noon to 10 p.m. All major credit cards. No smoking. Parking lot. Prices: appetizers $2.95 to $11.95; lunch entrees $6.25 to $15.95; dinner entrees $7.25 to $15.95. Full dinner with beer, tax and tip about $30 per person.

Thanks to the rich infusion of restaurants near MCI Center over the years, that slice of Washington could probably make most of a United Nations delegation feel at home. Within a short walk of one another are kitchens that specialize in Spanish tapas, Chinese noodles, American barbecue and pizza, Indian curries, Mexican seviche, Irish corned beef and cabbage, and Japanese sushi. Now, with the arrival of Kanlaya Thai Cuisine, the menu is broader still: Thailand gets recognized with green papaya salad and deep-fried bananas.

Kanlaya, in Chinatown, is newsworthy for a number of reasons, one being that it's not a big, bland chain restaurant squeezing out a local player. That thought occurred to me one recent evening when my waiter at Kanlaya noticed a traffic officer outside, writing a ticket for a car parked near the restaurant. "Do you have a car out front?" he asked table after table, trying to ward off potential trouble for one of his customers. Now that's personalized service.

If you're a worker bee with not much time for lunch, or if you need to be in your seat for a game or concert in less than an hour, Kanlaya is a good place to find a meal. The food comes out very fast; indeed, sometimes everything you've ordered arrives at once. But you're bound to enjoy it anyway if you asked for larb gai, that zesty salad of crumbled chicken tossed with a dressing of lime and fresh mint, or a coconut milk soup packed with chicken and mushrooms, every spoonful of broth seesawing between sweet and tangy. The chicken satays, yellow with curry powder and plenty moist, are a hit as well. When the season for eating soft-shell crabs arrived, one of the places I most enjoyed that rite of spring was here, where the crabs sported crunchy golden coats and a sauce of tamarind and coconut milk. Vegetables leave the kitchen bright and crisp; stir-fried Chinese broccoli, bold with oyster sauce, ranks as one of my favorites. So, too, does a colorful entree of purple baby eggplant, dark green split chilies and Christmas-red ribbons of bell peppers, everything mixed with crinkly cubes of tofu and splashed with black bean sauce.

The weak links in the chain include stolid and dense steamed "Siam dumplings" and "Kanlaya grilled pork," which looks more like a thin hamburger and rests on a "bun" of gummy rice.

Some like it hot, and diners who do had better make that point clear to the staff. This is a kitchen that pulls its punches if you aren't insistent; shaved beef with bamboo shoots in a supposedly spicy red curry didn't sound a single fire alarm. Several dishes leave a nice tingling sensation on the lips, though, including stir-fried rice with a choice of meat, chilies, garlic and fresh herbs, and a special recommended by a waiter, sauteed squid mixed with Thai basil, red bell pepper and onion. If the servers act a little rushed sometimes ("Hihowareyoudoyouwantatablefortwo?"), they are good guides to what's best on any given day.

Kanlaya's dining room starts out big and pale yellow, but becomes more intimate in the back, where the space narrows, the walls turn burgundy and handsome banquettes foster a cozier atmosphere. Up front, facing the window, is a good spot for reading a newspaper; the back room is perfect cheap-date territory. Anywhere, it is fast food with a point of view.

EVEN AFTER 14 YEARS, Crystal Thai seems eager to please. The servers, dressed in traditional silk costumes, welcome strangers as if they were regulars. And unlike so much of the competition, this Thai restaurant eschews bright colors and splashy neon for a style that is more sedate. The dark mahogany bar would look at home in a steakhouse, chandeliers illuminate the crowd below, and white linens grace the tabletops. It was reassuring to see, more than once, tables full of people who probably grew up on Thai cooking.

Including specials, the number of menu possibilities reaches the triple digits, so allow me to cut to some highlights. Scallion-veined fish cakes (No. 2) are nice and light, though spirals of ground shrimp and crisp seaweed (No. 8) are more interesting, like seafood sausage served with a gently teasing sauce that's red with bell peppers. No. 28 (pok tak) is a superior soup, its golden broth sharpened with lemon grass, dressed with fresh herbs and brimming with tender squid and scallops. Of the main dishes, I'm partial to pork chops marinated in green curry (No. 78), singed by the grill and enhanced at the table with a vinegary cucumber-and-onion sauce, as well as a truly spicy and crispy "spicy crispy catfish" (No. 55). Pieces of the fish are mixed with Thai basil, fresh ginger and red chilies; eating the dish feels like a hundred tiny firecrackers going off on your tongue.

While the kitchen is a reliable flame-thrower, it also displays an unfortunate sweet tooth. Basically, any recipe that is supposed to have a touch of sugar in its seasoning tends to have a shower of it here, be it the brown dipping sauce, apparently auditioning to be a dessert topping, served with the "Crystal rolls" stuffed with chicken, egg, carrot and mint, or the pad Thai, the familiar mix of rice noodles and vegetables that practically gets candy-coated here.

The CliffsNotes version of the place would read something like this: Ease into a booth if you can, enjoy the solicitous staff, gravitate to what's hot -- or the chef's specials -- and ask the kitchen to go easy on the sweet stuff.

Ask Tom

If my reader comments are any gauge, it's the little -- and easily avoidable -- things that most annoy diners. Consider Bil Greene of Dale City, whose e-mail complaint involves the clunky, two-word response he hears from too many servers when he asks them a question: "No problem." I can think of all sorts of suitable substitutes for "No problem," among them "Certainly," "Of course" or even "Yes, sir" -- all of which fall easier on the ear. At least Greene has kept his sense of humor about it all. "About the only two things I have found that aren't answered with 'No problem,' " he observes, "are 'I don't have enough money to pay my check' and 'Don't work too hard.' "

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.