Atmosphere: Garden variety Chinese decor.

Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:45 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 9:30 p.m.

Price range: $2.75 for meatless fried rice to $7.20 for Ho Won steak.

Reservations: Not necessary.

Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard.

Special facilities: Easy parking in mall lot; accessible to the handicapped; high chairs and boosters available, carryout.

New Carrollton is a suburb with its fair share of Chinese restaurants, and another one more or less would seem of little importance.

But when a friend who is a good cook raved about Ho Won, a Chinese restaurant in the New Carrollton Mall, we became curious. "The hot and sour soup is the best I've ever had," was the line that got us. Off we went to see for ourselves.

With Ho Won's proximity to stores and theaters, it is a natural place to retreat after an afternoon of shopping or an early evening movie. It is unpretentious, relaxed and affordable, and the food is very, very good.

On a Sunday night, with most stores closed, we nearly had the place to ourselves, but the two women who seated and served us were gracious and welcoming.

There is little to distinguish the interior of this Chinese restaurant from a hundred others, but our twin daughters liked the placemats, which encouraged them to find the animal signs for the year they were born, according to the Chinese zodiac. They were happy to discover that 1970 was the year of the dog, and that they therefore were generous and loyal.

Collectively, the family did all right. The zodiac assured us we were all intelligent, attractive, talented and sensitive. It also kept the kids happy while we waited for our soup, and put us in a good mood for the dinner we had ordered.

We began with the hot and sour soup, ($2.70 for 2), which was some of the best we have ever eaten, too. The girls as usual has won ton soup (80 cents each) and found Ho Won's version to their liking. Given the restaurant's fairly standard Chinese menu, we zeroed in on the page listing the chef's specialties and the section extolling "Hot! Spicy! Szechuan food!" The quality of these dishes is high, and the more traditional moo goo gai pan seemed better than average as well.

On a family night out, it hardly seemed appropriate to pass up a dish called "Family's delight" ($5.25). It turned out to be an accurately named, a well-flavored melange of shrimp, chicken, pork and Chinese vegetables. Another winner was hip har steak ($5.75) which we thought might please the girls since its vegetable combination includes snow pea pods, water chestnuts and baby sweet corn -- tiny corn on the cob so tender you can eat the whole thing. The marinated steak that completed the dish was delicious and we were glad we had tried it.

My husband and I are fond of Szechuan pork ($4.95) so we ordered Ho Won's version. In spite of the menu's headlines, it was not so hot as to be overwhelming, and the kids also enjoyed sampling it. However, they were not about to switch their allegiance from their favorite mu shi pork ($5.50) to our spicier pork dish.

At dessert time, our waitress appeared with a plate of fortune cookies and almond cookies. One of the girls had spotted fried bananas (60 cents) on the menu. Batter-dipped and deep-fried, the fruit is served hot and covered with powdered sugar. When it arrived, her sister realized what she had missed ordering and was disappointed with her ice cream. One of the ladies who had served us observed all this from a corner; she spoke very little English, but arrived at our table with a big smile and an extra plate and fork which she used to split the large serving between the girls. Her alertness made everybody happy.

Care in both food preparation and service distinguish Ho Won from neighboring Chinese restaurants. In New Carrollton, it is the place to go. nOur bill for five, tax and tip included, was $41.49.