Hunan East

8792-B and C Sacramento Drive, Alexandria

780-9500

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Prices: Lunch soups and appetizers $1.25 to $4.25, entrees $3.95 to $4.95; dinner soups and appetizers $2 to $4.25, entrees $5.75 to $20.95 (mostly $7.50 to $12.95).

Credit Cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa, Diners Club.

Separate nonsmoking area available.

If you're looking for culinary razzle-dazzle, then you might want to keep driving past Hunan East, where the familiar selection of Hunan and Szechuan dishes, plus an occasional Cantonese preparation, is virtually indistinguishable from other suburban Chinese restaurants.

Nonetheless, the general quality and consistency of the kitchen is a cut or two above the ordinary and makes this a neighborhood restaurant worth knowing about.

The decor at this location, which is loosely affiliated with four other Hunan East restaurants in Northern Virginia, is pleasant, if not original, with attractive etched-glass room dividers, pearl gray and raspberry walls, pink table linens and modern light fixtures.

A wonderful, light appetizer is the lettuce-wrapped chicken for two ($4), in which a dice of smokey chunks of chicken, crunchy water chestnuts and sweet green and red peppers arrive in a lettuce leaf cup.

Also good are the dan dan noodles ($3), coated with a mildly spicy peanut sauce, and the meaty steamed dumplings accompanied by a sweet-and-sour dipping sauce ($4).

A few starters, however, did not hold much interest, such as the bland spring roll, and two soups, the watery triple delight and the vinegary hot and sour.

Prices are reasonable -- virtually all but the specials and a few seafood dishes are under $9 -- and at $18 the nicely roasted, moist Peking duck is a good buy. Three to four diners could share it for an elegant opener in lieu of other appetizers.

On a recent visit, there was a bargain-priced special -- a perfectly cooked, crispy whole sea bass ($9.75, down from the usual $12.95), swimming in a pool of gently spicy tomato and onion sauce accented with red and green peppers.

You can pay up to $12.95 for whole jumbo shrimp with three vegetables billed as a house specialty. But if you don't mind medium shrimp slit lengthwise, there is a fine substitute of shrimp with a tangy garlic sauce for $8.75.

The only entree that fell short of expectation was the overly salty briny oysters in the oysterfeast with shrimp and vegetables.

The kitchen tends to go easy on the hot spices, so although the chicken with fresh hot peppers was quite tasty, it arrived only faintly spicy. It was the same story with the mild Hunan pork, a combination of stir-fried strips of pork and crunchy broccoli in a brown sauce.

The spiciness was more pronounced (and more to my liking) in the first-rate General Tso's chicken, nuggets of batter-fried white meat crowned with a sweet-and-hot glaze. And flecks of hot red pepper flakes were more in evidence in the silky bean curd Hunan-style in a light brown sauce.

Desserts are pretty much limited to fortune cookies and canned fruit, but if you're really determined, there's Tubby's frozen custard just across the street.