Hours: Tuesday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday to 10 p.m. Closed Monday. Prices: Most appetizers $4; entrees $4.50 to $5.95. Cards: MasterCard, Visa. By Mark and Gail Barnett Special to The Washington Post

Over the past few years, there's been a gradual and welcome increase in the number of Thai restaurants in the suburbs. One of the very first was the Thai Hut, and it still turns out excellent Thai dishes at very reasonable prices. If you haven't tried Thai food, this is a good place to begin.

Thai Hut is a restaurant for families, with lots of children and grandparents and a reassuring sprinkling of Thai patrons. The place, one of a series of nondescript stores in a nondescript shopping row on University Boulevard, isn't much to look at: plastic tablecloths, plastic flowers, plastic wall paneling and plastic booths in a particularly eye-jarring shade of turquoise.

But you don't come for the beauty, just good food, and of that there's plenty. In fact, the menu lists 110 items.

Rest assured, though, that the choices aren't as overwhelming as you might think. There's a certain amount of duplication, with the same sauces appearing on beef, pork, chicken and shrimp.

Here's a quick tour of the menu, with special note of some high points.

Bear in mind that for all its legendary hotness, Thai cooking incorporates a wonderful intermingling of flavors, with a bold use of ginger, garlic and Asian herbs. There are particular taste sensations in this cuisine that you won't find elsewhere, and it's easy to fall in love with them.

This brings us to chicken and coconut milk soup (No. 19), one of our favorite Thai dishes, in which a good, meaty chicken broth mingles with coconut milk, lemon grass, chili pepper, Thai ginger and kafir lime leaf. This one's love at first taste. (But watch out for the stuff that looks like green beans -- it's actually green chili pepper.)

Another wonderful soup is No. 17, a must for fish lovers and practically a meal in itself: perfectly fresh chunks of fish fillet beautifully cooked in a chicken broth that's peppery-hot and lemony-tasting.

Among the appetizers, No. 11 is a jazzed-up tuna salad with scallion, lemon juice, ginger and chili pepper. No. 6, although it's called hot-and-sour beef salad, is actually relatively mild, with excellent cold marinated beef.

Mild appetizers? The spring rolls are excellent, as is satay, the traditional marinated, skewered and charcoal-broiled meat dish.

Shrimp cake (No. 4) is something else again -- too oily, and rather flat-tasting.

For a marvelous, slightly hot dish, try beef, pork or chicken with ginger root, with an intriguing sauce that has just the right touch of sweetness.

A little more incendiary (again, watch those whole green peppers) are the dishes with Thai basil leaves, which have a little more pungent flavor than the domestic variety. Not as hot as expected, and somewhat uninteresting, are the dishes with red curry paste and string beans.

The shrimp at the Thai Hut are first class: plump, sweet, tender and fresh-tasting.

Compared with typical seafood house prices, they're a bargain at $6 for 10 big ones.

Try the shrimp with white pepper and garlic -- a touch of sharpness, but not really hot, and with enough minced garlic to ward off a battalion of evil spirits.

Another outstanding mild dish is the chicken barbecue, a fresh bird with a delicious marinade that really penetrates the meat.

Sweet and sour fish, generally a dull candied dish, is superlative -- a heaping platter of perfectly fresh, perfectly fried fish covered with lively, barely cooked vegetables and a sauce that's at least as tart as it is sweet. It's a balanced meal on one plate, and all for $6.50.

If you are a curry lover, don't overlook No. 98, the curry of the day. It's outstanding, with that complex layering of flavors -- hot yet silky -- that marks the best of them.

This is a first-class restaurant in plain-Jane trappings, and the price is right. Try it.