Szechuan & Human Taste is tucked behind a hardware store on one of those little insignificant streets cum alleys which run into the jumble of roads called "downtown McLean." Half the challenge is finding it. But find it we did, and in that unlikely location we discovered what may be one of Northern Virginia's best Chinese restaurants considering value for money and range of dishes offered.

We'd been warned by friends that the place fills up by 7.30, so we arrived by 7 and were seated promptly by a friendly waiter who took our two boys' orders for Cokes. They had to be persuaded first that if they were served any of the exotic "umbrella-ed" concoctions pictured on the drink menu, they might end up in the can. Only then would they consent to the mundanity of soda.

Szechuan & Hunan Taste can best be described as unpretentious. Situated in a plate-glass store front, it sports all the usual accoutrements of the Siam restaurants - lanterns hanging from the ceiling, gaudy wallpaper and gilt here and there.

But the food is anything but usual, and almost half the restaurant's menu items are of the more sophiscated hot andspicy Szechuan and Hunan varieties. My husband and I studied the menu eagerly, just wishing there were more of us so we could try more dishes.

Since it was a rainy night, we settled on a soup first - a shrimp with crisp rice soup, $3.95 for four of us. A few minutes later our waiter arrived with a simple bowl of hot fried rice, and a steaming stove pot full of soup. He poured the contents over the rice, and what happened next put Rice Crispies to shame. No simple snap-crackle-pop here. But a pow pang sizzle as the boiling soup hit the rice. Just hearing it warmed us up.

We then ladled out the broth, swimming with chunks of shrimp, mushrooms and snow peas - an exciting way to begin the meal.

Our next choices were sweet and sour shrimp, $4.75; Mooshi pork, $4.85, with two extra pancakes; and a delicious "Viceroy Tso's Chicken," $5.95, which was listed as one of chef Po'chia Chang's specialities. According to a note on the menu, Tso was a famous general in the Ching dynasty, and this concoction was named after him because it is said to be not only his favorite dish but his culinary invention as well.

Tso's chicken, listed on the menu in red, for hot dish, was very spicy but not overpowering. And it was the hit of our meal. The shrimp, too, was very good, as was the Mooshi pork, although the latter involved more mooshi than pork.

Some of the other chef's specialities, which we'd like to try in the future, include shredded duck, Hunan style, $6.25 sliced lobster with Chinese greens, $6.95, and an exotic sounding abalone sauteed with mushrooms and snow peas, $6.25.

The intriguing items on the menu are too numerous to mention, although something called Tung-an chicken, a $4.75 dish translated as "chicken with a funny taste," and a chicken appetizer called Bung Bung chicken, which includes peanut butter, certainly caught our eye and curiosity.

presumably all these dishes arrive at the table as our selections did - steaming hot on mismatched serving dishes. The last touch really made us feel at home.

We opted to skip the tofee apple or banana dessert, $2.95 for four people, and had tea and fortune cookies instead. The bill, without tip, came to $23.08 for the four of us.