6408 Kenilworth Ave., Riverdale. 277-7174 or 277-2880.

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Sunday.

Atmosphere: Not beautiful but clean and comfortable.

Price range: $4.25 to $15. Most dishes in $5 to $7 range.

Reservations: Not necessary.

Credit cards: Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Diner's Club.

Special facilities: Easy parking in restaurant lot; accessible to the handicapped; booster seats and highchairs available; carryout; draft and Chinese beer available. Special to The Washington Post

If the name Golden Wagon conjures up for you, as did for me, images of beef barbecue and round-ups, you're in for a surprise. The Golden Wagon is a jewel of a Chinese restaurant which seems all the more valuable because it is isolated on a strip of suburban highway where you might expect golden arches, but no culinary treasures.

The Golden Wagon serves wonderful Peking/Szechuan-style food in a setting that might best be described as tacky. A large Coke machine and a cafeteria service bar are in full view, and old Christmas balls and limp crepe paper party decorations still hang from the ceiling.

But so what -- you'll feel perfectly comfortable there in your jeans, and if the kids are less than perfect, everybody else will be too busy enjoying the good food to notice.

Like most Chinese menus, the Golden Wagon's is extensive. Unlike most Chinese menus, this one offers, along with the moo goo gai pan, a number of seldom seen but authentic dishes that will intrigue parents if not their offspring.

Sea cucumber with brown sauce, pig leg meat with crystal sugar, and curried egg dumplings were some of the names that teased our imaginations. It is also possible to order whole steamed fish, lamb soup, and tripe, to say nothing of eight precious rice.

Two drawbacks: many of these specialties are available only on weekends, and they make up the pricier end of the menu. Therefore, to sample the house specialties inexpensively, we ordered two appetizers that turned out to be great buys.

Fried beef cakes, 2 for $1.50, and a platter of 10 boiled dumplings, $2.95, were so good that the kids admitted they were competition for their egg rolls. The beef cakes, coarsely ground beef in a thin wrapper of dough, were fried to slight crispness on the outside and medium rare juiciness inside.

The dumplings, filled with ground meats, were served with a trio of sauces that ranged from a peppery garlic to a milder vinegar-soy combination. They were delicious.

Given the number of unusual entrees we wanted to try, our daughters did what children tend to do. Not one of them, it seemed, could survive the meal without their favorite moo shi pork, $5.25. The entire happiness of one of them, it seemed, depended on our ordering sweet and sour pork, $5.25. So we did what parents do. We compromised. Moo shi pork and sweet and sour for you and two Szechuan dishes for us.

Actually, the kids' choices turned out to be a blessing in disguise. They demonstrated that the Golden Wagon outdoes the local competition even on common dishes. Moo shi pork was full of pork, fried egg and the usual Chinese cabbage and bean sprouts, but was so well flavored and prepared that we have rarely tasted any so good.

Sweet and sour pork also was unusually fine, the batter on the pork crisp under a balanced sauce which truly tasted both sweet and sour, unlike the cloying flavor that dish is sometimes reduced to.

Our choices were equally delicious. Diced chicken Golden Wagon style, $4.75, was perfectly trimmed and cut chicken served in a hot Szechuan sauce with lima beans. Their soft texture balanced the firm chicken pieces, and their blandness, the spice of the dish.

Volcano chicken, beef and shrimps, $7.45, is Golden Wagon's version of sizzling rice. It is a huge serving, dramatically served with hissing and sputtering when the meats and vegetables are poured onto the heated rice platter. Children love its noise, and they'll like the flavor, too, since it is mildly seasoned. As in the other dishes, meats were abundant, vegetables fresh and crisp, and the whole dish a culinary delight.

Servings at the Golden Wagon are large and we thought we would never finish everthing, but only a few vegetables remained when it was time to pay our check: $39 for five of us, tax and tip included.