Cha Gio 7246 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church 560-6283 Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week. Prices: Most dishes $2 to $5. Cards: None. No nonsmoking section.

The competition for best Vietnamese restaurant in Northern Virginia is stiff because there are so many worthy contenders. Based on recent visits, an oldie but goodie that may have been overlooked is Cha Gio. Small and unassuming, this six-year-old delight is far removed from the cluster of better known Vietnamese restaurants on Wilson Boulevard in Clarendon.

Not only are many dishes here exceptional, but what bargains! A meal-sized bowl of soup is $3, and for $3.50 you can have two bamboo skewers of grilled meat with vermicelli noodles or rice. If you're really hungry, add an appetizer, beverage and dessert and your check could still be under $10.

The family-run Cha Gio, which easily makes up in character what it may lack in decor, is the pride of Ngo and Tuy Vu, who run the business assisted by some of their seven children.

Tuy Vu is firmly in control of the kitchen and insists that each of her six daughters learn the basics of Vietnamese cooking, such as how to fry the dried onion flakes to a crisp golden brown, being mindful that a slight variation in the temperature of the oil can either burn the tiny shreds or leave them too pale. These flakes are a tasty addition to a variety of winning dishes -- tender, sweetly marinated barbecued chicken served with vermicelli noodles and the delightful fried egg noodles with assorted meats and vegetables.

A variety of onions -- dried, green and round -- are used to good effect in this kitchen. For example, in the savory filling of the spring roll are diced round onions mixed with the pork and clear noodles. The rolls are fried to order so that the parchment-like rice paper wrappers come out shatteringly crisp.

The quality of these meal-in-a-bowl dishes is generally first-rate. The sprightly, sweet-edged tamarind shrimp soup is my favorite, with vinegar providing the sour tang. I also would recommend the wonton soup crowded with 10 ginger-laced dumplings plus slices of red-rimmed pork. (There are also fried wontons that make a dandy appetizer.) The special chicken soup with transparent noodles enhanced by a touch of tomato paste was pleasant, as was the beef anise soup.

There are only a few spicy dishes, and the fiery curried chicken gets my enthusiastic recommendation.

Although almost everything on the menu is available daily, there are a few exceptions worth noting. Available only on Sunday, "suong" is a flavorful soup containing lean pork slices in a chicken broth base with puffy "noodles" made from a delicious shrimp batter. (Also do not pass up the delectable shrimp toast on thick French bread.)

Tuy Vu arrives by 6:30 a.m. both Saturday and Sunday to make steamed rice crepes for another weekend special. Diners wishing to sample the generous serving of five for $3 have to get there early, too, as they are usually gone by lunch time. The limp and sticky crepes are rolled around a sprinkling of tasty ground pork and mushrooms and topped with fresh coriander leaves and slivers of a mild, finely ground Vietnamese sausage. They are worth trying, although they would not be among my first choices to order again.

There are two "big splurge" items for $10 each. The special chicken in which a whole bird is skillfully boned and stuffed without breaking the skin must be ordered a day in advance. While the concept and execution are impressive, the gently seasoned pork and vermicelli stuffing was less exciting. The other dish, a marinated beef special, requires no advance notice, only a volunteer chef from our party to cook the thin strips of meat on a griddle brought to your table. Served with steamed rice, or softened rice paper if you request it, one order is traditionally shared by two to four diners. Beer is typically the beverage of choice.

Don't miss the big, rich egg custards now on display. If you're feeling adventurous, ask for the creamy mung bean drink. Tasting somewhat like vanilla pudding, the sweetened mung bean puree is served with a mound of crushed ice. The sweetened iced coffee with condensed milk is terrific anytime.