{sstar}{sstar} (2 stars) Mandalay Restaurant & Cafe

930 Bonifant St. (near Georgia Avenue), Silver Spring. 301-585-0500. www.mandalayrestaurantcafe.org

Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday noon to 3 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 10:30 p.m. MC, V. No reservations. No smoking. Metro: Silver Spring. Parking lot. Prices: appetizers $4 to $7, entrees $7 to $9. Full dinner with nonalcoholic drinks, tax and tip about $15 per person.

On a wall at Mandalay hang two framed T-shirts that, covered with signatures, are more black than white. These are the autographs of dozens of people who showed up to celebrate the unofficial grand opening of this Burmese restaurant when it relocated from College Park to Silver Spring in October. Aung Myint, one of eight family members who run the business, says that only regulars from the original were invited.

Almost 500 people dropped by.

Maybe it was the memory of the tea leaf salad that lured the well-wishers. Pickled tea leaves give the dish its dusky color and subtle bitterness, and sesame seeds and peanuts lend light crunch, while dried shrimp and fried garlic weigh in with some pungency. The combination is fresh, bold and a little mysterious.

Or perhaps it was the pork with pickled mango that drew the crowd. This is a pork stew you'll recall long after you've eaten it: big chunks of tender meat sharing a shallow bowl with plump, powerfully tangy chunks of fruit.

Then again, it could have been the tender sauteed shrimp tossed with sour mustard leaves, cilantro and onions. It's an irresistible dish. One bite leads to another, and another, until all that remains is a contented smile on your face.

The food at Mandalay has always been good, but now that the restaurant has changed locations, there's more than double the room to seat its customers and a slightly larger menu to keep them engaged. It's also a bit more expensive than the original, but by no more than $1 a dish. Considering that the entrees average barely $8, Mandalay remains a value.

"There's so much to choose from!" a friend of mine said as he studied the epic menu created by Hla Hme, who is Aung Myint's mother and the head cook at Mandalay. "I could come back here 20 times" and never order the same thing, he said. At first, the list looks like one of those Chinese menus that go on for pages but turn out to be variations on just a few themes ("sweet and sour chicken, sweet and sour pork, sweet and sour shrimp . . . "). But Mandalay doesn't pull that trick. Several visits with hungry pals in tow gave me the chance to put a sizable dent in this collection, and no two dishes I tried seemed to be twins.

The cooking of Burma, a country about the size of Texas, is shaped by its neighbors, borrowing noodles and bean curd from China, and spices including cumin, coriander seeds and curry leaves from India. Instead of salt, the Burmese repertoire relies on fermented shrimp and fish pastes, just as Thai cooking does. What comes to the table, then, is familiar to fans of Chinese, Indian and Southeast Asian menus, but also different.

The Burmese national dish is mohingar -- fish soup with rice noodles -- whose recipe varies slightly from region to region but whose dull beige color gives no hint of its appealing flavor. The fish, typically catfish, is boiled with lemon grass until it flakes, and then is stir-fried with a paste of onion, chilies and more lemon grass. As prepared here, the dish is more subtle than those ingredients suggest, but it is a simple comfort. Other bowls beckon, too. Vegetable soup brims with okra, carrot, eggplant and potato; coconut soup is filled out with soft bites of chicken.

Frying is a quiet art at Mandalay, best expressed in the half-dozen fritters served as appetizers. The batter clinging to fingers of white squash is as light as tempura; indeed, the coating upstages the bland vegetable center. Golden patties of yellow split peas are gently crisp outside and nicely cakey within. Both snacks get a lift from the bright orange dipping sauce, which races from tangy to salty to hot in every encounter.

Good as those introductions are, I'd trade the soup and fritters for just about any of the refreshing salads. In addition to the one made with pickled tea leaves (in Burma, by the way, those leaves are more likely served as a dessert), the possibilities include a salad of finely shredded cabbage, fresh ginger and peanut dressing, and another of slightly chewy squid with tomato, carrot and crackling fried onions.

Your server is likely to ask how you prefer your food seasoned. "No spice, mild, medium or spicy?" is how the question typically goes, says Myint, unless you're a regular who has an asbestos tongue and demands more firepower. The next heat level, "extra spicy," delivers on its promise. Eyes tear, hairs stand, eyebrows jump. Consider yourself warned. To take just one example, the red chili flakes on thin slices of beef with tomato and onion gravy lit a four-alarm fire on my tongue.

Vegetarians don't have to travel third-class at Mandalay, where some of the best dishes are meatless. Small yellow beans, ringers for chickpeas, are stir-fried with curry and onions in one winning entree, though I'm just as content eating a milder mixed noodle dish accessorized with soft potato, crisp tofu, bright cilantro, fried onion bits and a peanutty dressing.

The catch to all this fine food? Service that can be on or not, as in, "Will someone please take my order?" or "Do you think our sodas will arrive before we finish eating?" Regulars, often seen being chatted up by the staff, seem to have a slight edge in the service department. Still, I was charmed one afternoon when a friend asked one of the senior hosts about a dessert -- a cream of wheat cake -- and the man produced a Burmese cookbook so my friend could copy down the recipe. The server was clearly proud of what came from the kitchen, and the custardlike wedge, with its raisin-veined center and lightly browned top, was worthy of his admiration.

Unlike the plain shoebox that was the old restaurant, this incarnation is slightly dressy, with booths covered in orange-gold fabric and buffed dark wood tables. Some orchids here, a painting there, complete the otherwise unadorned picture. At Mandalay, the food is focus enough.

Ask Tom

Having enjoyed dinner a year ago at Amada Amante in Rockville -- and having observed children in the restaurant at the time -- Adam Apatoff returned on a recent Sunday with his wife, his 1-year-old child and assorted relatives for a 5 p.m. dinner reservation. "Much to our surprise, the restaurant had no highchair or booster seat for our little one," the Rockville reader wrote to me in an e-mail. "The server's curt response was, 'We don't get many children here, so the owner didn't think it was worth having any.' Needless to say, we left completely surprised that a restaurant in the heart of Montgomery County subdivisions would be so cavalier about accommodating parents with children." Reached for comment, chef/owner Phil Burleson said that while he didn't want to "limit my clientele," he opened his restaurant with "an adult atmosphere" in mind and opted not to provide special seating for small children. Yet he also said he had prepared simple pasta dishes and had "fried up chicken" to accommodate the appetites of some of his youngest guests in the past. Regardless, Burleson conceded, the "situation wasn't handled right" with Apatoff and family. I'm inclined to side with the patron. It is not too much to expect the restaurant to offer a highchair, given the neighborhood. That said, to avoid an unpleasant surprise, customers should consider making requests -- basic as they may seem -- in advance.

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.