8430 Baltimore Ave.,

College Park


Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

Prices: Most dinner entrees $6 to $9.

Cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.

Don't let Sichuan's appearance fool you.

Sure, it's a nondescript-looking place, a little cinderblock building that has seen better days. Sure, the dining room is a bit tatty and the servers seem tired. Sure, the creature comforts are minimal (the winter winds seep through one wall, and you can practically see your breath in the restrooms).

But the trick here is to ignore the surroundings and concentrate on the food, much of which is extraordinarily good, very generously portioned and reasonably priced. These are not unusual or fancy or gorgeously presented dishes, but they are prepared and sauced with unusual subtlety and restraint.

Meats and vegetables are fresh and carefully cooked, and sauces, blessedly free of excess cornstarch and sugar, are used to bring out natural flavors, not drown them.

Appetizers are not Sichuan's strong suit. Among the better ones are the curried beef pies, similar to Caribbean beef patties, with nicely flaky pastry wrappers and a steaming, curry-flavored ground-beef filling.

The steamed dumplings are pleasant enough, with good ground pork fillings laced with garlic and ginger, but their wrappers are a bit doughy. Whatever you do, avoid the shrimp toast, an oily, mushy disaster.

It's among the entrees where Sichuan really shines. The shrimp have been excellent, big, plump and succulent, and the sauces let their fresh taste shine through. Try shrimp with yu shiang sauce -- peppery-hot, with just a little sweetness and tartness and plenty of garlic.

The black bean sauce is another gem, mild and subtle. Have it with the lovely, tender squid, prepared with big chunks of green pepper and onion. Notice how the sauce just coats each morsel -- and is not a puddle on the plate.

The garlic sauce, a nearly clear broth with minced garlic, proves the virtue of simplicity. Combined with the big, tender sea scallops, it makes for a delicate, uncomplicated, satisfying dish.

For something with a lot more zip, try the robust sha cha chicken, the chicken morsels well trimmed and tender, coated with a peppery, smoky sauce that has a pungent grilled flavor.

Sichuan-style meats in restaurants are often so overloaded with hoisin sauce that they taste like candy. No such problem here. Sichuan pork is a delight, with carrot strips cut to match the pork and with a meaty, well-balanced sauce. High marks for the Hunan-style dishes, too. Note particularly the Hunan beef, beautifully tender and flavorful.

Noodle dishes here are lovely. San shein ja jung mein is an immensely likable choice, a deep bowlful of soft noodles topped with a ground pork sauce with scallops and tiny shrimp. Toss it like pasta and dig in. One order will feed two if supplemented by soup or a vegetable dish.

Peking duck, carved in the kitchen rather than at the table, is a good if unspectacular version, with tender, succulent meat that is reasonably free of excess fat.

Vegetarians can do very well here. There are excellent moo shi vegetables, vegetable fried rice, vegetable lo mein, and delicate watercress with garlic sauce.