{sstar}{sstar} (2 stars) Fortune

6249 Arlington Blvd. (in Seven Corners Center), Falls Church. 703-538-3333. www.fortunerestaurantbanquet.com

Open: for dim sum daily 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; full menu available Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.; lunch specials available Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. D, MC, V. No smoking. Parking lot. Prices: dim sum $1.95 to $5.50; appetizers $1.25 to $6.50; lunch entrees $4.75 to $45; dinner entrees $7.25 to $45. Dim sum with tea, tax and tip about $15 per person. (Other location: 1428 North Point Village Center, Reston, 703-318-8898.)

{sstar}{sstar} (2 stars) Good Fortune

2646 University Blvd. West (near Veirs Mill Road), Wheaton. 301-929-8818

Open: for dim sum and lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dim sum Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 3 to 11:30 p.m., Friday through Sunday 3 to 12:30 p.m. MC, V. Reservations not accepted for Sunday dim sum. No smoking. Metro: Wheaton. Prices: dim sum $2.25 to $3.50; appetizers $1.25 to $6.50; lunch entrees $5.50 to $24.95; dinner entrees $6.95 to $24.95. Dim sum with tea, tax and tip about $15 per person.

I am by nature a snacker, a guy who, given the choice, would eat an assortment of small bites at a sitting rather than commit to a single large plate of food. Give me variety! Then let me share the spread with comrades around a table. Those twin passions, food and friends, recently prompted me to explore Chinese restaurants in the area specializing in dim sum. Made up of multiple dishes sized like appetizers, dim sum (sometimes translated as "heart's delight") embraces noodle dishes, dumplings, soups, and both savory and sweet treats. It's teahouse fare and is found across China, though the Cantonese -- known for their light ways with prime ingredients and blessed with a year-round growing season and proximity to the South China Sea -- are said to be masters of the form.

There are two types of dim sum restaurant. One allows you to order a la carte, from a list of dishes with boxes next to their names. You check off what you want and wait for the food to land on your table. A & J, with locations in Annandale and Rockville, exemplifies this style (I reviewed it in my October 17 Dining Guide). Other restaurants display their dim sum on trays or on metal carts that are pushed around the dining room by servers who hawk the wares, lifting the lids on some dishes to show off the goods inside. "Shrimp dumplings?" they might ask. "Spareribs with black bean sauce?"

My preference is for the carts, which add a little drama to a meal as they crisscross the room. Plus, and particularly if I've never been to the restaurant, I like to watch what the regulars in the crowd pick out first. Not long ago, at Lei Garden in Chinatown, I saw a knowledgeable customer order for a group of novices -- apparently strangers -- a table away. "This is just like Spanish tapas!" one of the grateful newcomers said. "You can pick whatever strikes your fancy."

It's true. There are very few rules with dim sum, which is typically served at breakfast or lunch. The sundry little dishes can be eaten in almost any order. You can sample a lot or a little, though most kitchens make several dozen kinds, increasing the temptation to order a crowd. The mini-feast, which can stretch late into the afternoon, is also easy on the wallet. Dishes are priced in categories, according to size and quality. When you're finished, your server simply tallies the bill by counting up the check marks.

Now for the less happy reality. Anyone who has sampled the bustling dim sum parlors of San Francisco or New York is apt to be disappointed by much of what is available in the Washington area, where the quantity and quality don't begin to compare to those cities. In Washington's Chinatown, Tony Cheng's gets points for its modestly regal interior and quick welcome, but its dim sum dishes tend to be heavy and bland (an exception is the light and tasty shrimp toast). No one bothered to ask why I left my table with so much uneaten. The nearby, second-floor Lei Garden looked worn around the edges, and much of its food was pretty tired, too. The scene isn't necessarily brighter in the suburbs. Matter-of-fact service, gray spareribs and bitter stuffed eggplant wouldn't bring me back to the sprawling Oriental East in Silver Spring. And on my most recent visit to Mark's Duck House in Falls Church, the warmest thing I got was a pot of tea (much of the food, piled high on the carts, was cool), and what wasn't limp or oily tasted like leftovers.

Fear not, there's still fun to be had. In addition to the aforementioned A & J restaurants, I'm eager to return to the following dim sum sources:

IF YOU THINK traffic jams occur only on paved surfaces, you haven't seen Fortune during rush hour -- otherwise known as dim sum service on the weekend.

That's when a fleet of metal carts wend their way through a sea of tables, stopping here to unload a dish of sticky rice or there to offer a steamer basket of shumai. The food in this Falls Church dining hall comes out with lightning speed, and the staff is quick to explain the options, making this a good place to know about if you have children or impatient appetites in tow.

Better yet, much of the cooking is very good. Among the hits: bite-size, sesame-seed-flecked pastries filled with sweet barbecued pork; shrimp paste wrapped around sugar cane and fried to a golden crisp; translucent scallop dumplings; and pork-and-chive dumplings. Clams get drenched in a too-thick brown sauce, and Chinese watercress is oily, but there are dozens of other plates to make you glad to be here, including roast chicken served with peppery salt, and wrinkly green beans in garlic sauce.

The catch? The decor, or what amounts to it. Purple drapes, and walls that should be any other color than they are, cry out for a visit from the crew of "Trading Spaces."

A COUPLE OF MEALS into my tour of area dim sum restaurants, it became clear: There's a sameness to most of the scripts. Everyone serves shrimp dumplings, beef-filled rice noodles and baked barbecued pork buns, and everyone follows them with egg custard tarts. The menu at Good Fortune in Wheaton reads like a lot of the competition, but execution is what nudges the 14-year-old restaurant, which employs three dim sum chefs, ahead of the pack. (Note: Carts are used only on weekends.)

For the most part, this is cooking with finesse. Spring rolls show up hot and crisp. Dumpling wrappers are sheer and light, pretty as porcelain, their ground shrimp centers subtly sweet. And 8-Treasure Sweet Rice in Lotus Leaves is not just poetry on paper; buried within the mound of sticky rice are goodies such as mushrooms, Chinese sausage and chicken, and the grains take on the fine, slightly nutty fragrance of the lotus leaves they're bound in. Here's the place to try ribbony tripe, garnished with scallions, as well as shrimp paste wrapped in a spindly web of fried taro root. Green beans retain a welcome crispness, while barbecued pork finds a nice home in big, soft, yeast-redolent buns.

All this good eating takes place in two large rooms that look like fast-food outlets, save for a few token Chinese knickknacks, but whose servers go about their work with slightly more gentility, and more civilized pacing, than the competition.

Ask Tom

After dinner at Obi Sushi, a Japanese restaurant in Reston Town Center, a waiter asked Carol Bruce how she liked her meal. "I responded truthfully that the sushi had been of marginal freshness," the Herndon reader wrote to me in an e-mail. The waiter informed the chef and returned to her table to relay the chef's message: The fish had been delivered just the day before (not uncommon in the business). "End of discussion. No apology for a disappointing meal, no offer to make things right," says Bruce, who wants to know: Do restaurant workers want an honest answer when they ask diners if they enjoyed their food? I posed the question to Yong Son, the owner of Obi, whose quick reply was "Absolutely!" If he'd heard about Bruce's complaint at the time, he says, he would have replaced her food or taken the charge off her bill. Ultimately, conscientious restaurateurs would prefer to hear a genuine complaint, and remedy the problem when it occurs, rather than to lose a customer -- and never know the reason.

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.