{sstar}{sstar} (2 stars) La Flor de la Canela

117 N. Frederick Ave. (near Chestnut Street), Gaithersburg. 301-519-9100

Open: Monday, Wednesday and Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Sunday noon to 9 p.m. Closed Tuesday. D, MC, V. Reservations accepted for parties of six or more. No smoking. Parking lot. Prices: appetizers $4 to $12, entrees $4 to $16. Full dinner with drinks, tax and tip about $35 per person.

The problem with naming your restaurant the Chicken Place is one of limitations. Sure, new customers may be drawn to you when they're looking for a roasted bird, but why would they ever think of you for seviche or steak with fried plantains? And so, for the first six years of its existence, the Gaithersburg restaurant of that name, owned by friends Juan Rodriguez and Lilian Clary, catered to a largely Peruvian audience, which gathered there as much for the flavors of home as for the signature rotisserie chicken.

"Everyone thought it was like Popeye's," just chicken, recalls Rodriguez. But last year, he and Clary expanded their repertoire to include even more Peruvian dishes, including beef heart and seafood stew, and changed the name to La Flor de la Canela, the title of a popular folk song in Peru.

One element of the operation, though, has stayed the same. "We both basically live here," jokes Rodriguez, who presides over the front of the house, mostly behind the bar, while Clary coaxes soothing meals from shrimp, beef, corn and potatoes in the kitchen.

But first you have to find the place. Any Mr. Magoos out there had better stay alert: It's easy to drive right past the restaurant, even if you know where you're going. La Flor de la Canela hides on the side of a small shopping strip, and the lettering on its sign is difficult to read from a moving vehicle. Once inside, however, you will be welcomed by the reassuring fragrance of cooked meat and onions and a bit of a style surprise: ornate leather-backed chairs and serious crafts on the yellow walls. The highlight of the collection depicts old Lima in a large wood carving, assembled from many small squares, but there are also handsome iron horsemen and paintings of Peruvian saints for the eyes to feast on. If there's an important soccer match being staged somewhere in the world, you can count on seeing it on the TV mounted over the small bar.

The attention paid to making the otherwise modest dining room comfortable carries over to the menu, which reads like a culinary guide to Peru. Your first stop on the tour should be a liquid one, preferably a pisco sour. Like a flute of champagne before a fine French meal, a pisco sour -- brandy capped with egg white foam and a dusting of cinnamon -- gets a diner primed for a Peruvian repast.

Potatoes are a building block of Peruvian cooking, and -- fried, boiled or roasted, as both appetizers and sidekicks to entrees -- they appear throughout the cooking at La Flor de la Canela. I relish them steamed, chilled and thinly sliced in a light salad with smooth, zesty cheese sauce. They are equally satisfying in the papa rellena, a heartier appetizer the size of a baseball, where they are mashed, wrapped around a savory core of ground beef, raisins and hard-cooked egg, and then fried; a pretty salad of red onion, tomato and fresh cilantro makes a refreshing contrast.

A problem I encounter with a lot of marinated seafood in restaurants is that too much of it tastes as if the seafood had spent about a week soaking in lemon or lime juice, which "cooks" the fish but also toughens it. Happily, that's not the case with this kitchen, which prepares its seviches to order. Every one I've tried sparkles with freshness. Heat-seekers in particular will appreciate the likes of flounder or tilapia cut into ribbons, splashed with lime juice and further ignited with its aji pepper sauce.

The sauces at La Flor de la Canela nudge many dishes from the realm of the tasty to the terrific. A dab of the pale green salsa picante, delivered to the table as an all-purpose condiment, adds shock value to whatever it touches, be it the pleasant herb-marinated chicken, the very good breaded steak or the lomo saltado, smoky-flavored beef strips tossed with tomatoes and onions and served with oiled white rice or (my choice) crisp fingers of yuca. Dark red slices of grilled beef heart, delicious on their own, are similarly enhanced by the accompanying hot yellow pepper sauce, a puree fueled by lemon, salt and garlic.

Even people who typically turn up their noses at tripe have been known to become converts to the dish -- let's be frank, it's stomach lining -- the way Clary prepares it. I know this because I witnessed several conversions with my own eyes: friends recoiling at the sight of the honeycombed organ meat as it landed on the table but, once they'd sampled it, later returning their forks for more. Tender and lustily flavored, it's offered several different ways here.

Weekends are the most engaging time at La Flor de la Canela. That's when the long dining room fills with families -- many of them Peruvian, most speaking Spanish -- and the place takes on the air of a community center. The young servers, slightly formal in black shirts and pants, manage the crowd with efficiency and grace; one lunch, chatting with both English- and Spanish-speakers at my table, my waiter switched nimbly from one language to the other. Sweet. Another indication of how popular the restaurant is with people who grew up outside this country is the 15 percent gratuity that is automatically added to every check; Rodriguez explains that tipping is not the custom in his native Peru.

Sheer bliss? Not quite. The chicken in the tamales is a bit dry, the seafood stew could use more punch, the doughnutlike picarones are gummy, and the bathrooms are an inconvenient distance from the restaurant proper. (The last problem, says Rodriguez, should be remedied once La Flor de la Canela takes over a vacant storefront next door.)

More often than not, though, this is food that tastes as if someone wanted you to leave the dining room happy. Mission accomplished, I say.

Ask Tom

"Please help stop an epidemic," implores Mike Conway of Herndon via e-mail. "For no sensible reason," he writes, "it seems to have become a source of pride among waiters and waitresses to take the order of everybody at a table without writing it down." Conway says that he and his fiancee have experienced the phenomenon "no less than 5 out of the last 6 times we have eaten out" and "3 of these 5 times, the order has been screwed up in some way." He warns servers: "If you don't write the order down, and the order is incorrect in any way, we will not regard it as a simple mistake possibly out of your control, but rather, a simple mistake caused because your stupid [self] didn't take out a pen." And, he adds, "we will tip accordingly." Sounds to me like good incentive for waiters everywhere to invest in a few notepads.

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.