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June 2005 Cheap Eats
100 Bargain Restaurants Where You'll Find Lots of Flavor & Fun By Cynthia Hacinli, Thomas Head, David Dorsen
Comments () | Published June 1, 2005

Cheap Eats restaurants--which The Washingtonian defines as places where two people can eat well for $50 or less--are getting harder to find. Bargain restaurants continue to open in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs, but many of the new restaurants opening in DC are not in the bargain range. Our best bets for good, inexpensive dining continue to be Asian restaurants--Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Indian. Here are 2005's very best places to eat without spending a lot of money.

A&J RESTAURANT Rockville, Annandale

Though better known for northern Chinese dim sum, these cafes also ladle up wonderful steaming soups, like the fiery spicy beef and the memorable pork chop, that make for good eating any time of day.

You can have your soup and your dim sum, too. Put together a meal of several items, such as the stogie-size pork pot stickers, razor-thin shavings of pork and beef, vegetable dumplings, pickled cabbage, and steamed spareribs with spiced rice powder.

Northern Chinese dim sum champions bread over noodles--try the thousand-layer pancake, made with flaky pull-apart dough. Both restaurants, with their contemporary look, attract young Chinese expats. In Annandale, faux stone and a mural of historic China set the scene. Rockville sports walls of yellow and cinnamon with trapeze lights flickering above.

A&J Restaurant, 1319-C Rockville Pike, Rockville, 301-251-7878; 4316-B Markham St., Annandale, 703-813-8181. No credit cards. AARATHI INDIAN CUISINE Vienna

At this attractive and very good Indian restaurant, prices are low: Nothing is above $12, and most dishes are under $10; vegetarian curries are about $7.

Good appetizers include chicken chat, a blend of chicken strips and vegetables, served cold; tandoori chicken wings; and bhajia, crushed vegetables dipped in a flour batter and deep-fried. A quartet of appetizers can be sampled for $4.99.

The tandoori main courses--chicken, lamb, and shrimp--are very good, as are the biryanis of lamb, chicken, shrimp, and vegetables in saffron basmati rice with plenty of cooked onions. There are curries of chicken, lamb, and vegetables, plus beef, which is not always available.

A special treat is the Prawns Bhuna, large shrimp sautéed in butter with herbs, green peppers, onions, and tomato. Want a bargain for dessert? Try the Indian rice pudding garnished with nuts or the deep-fried dry-milk balls soaked in honey syrup and served warm. The price? Just 99 cents.

Aarathi Indian Cuisine, 409 Maple Ave. E., Vienna; 703-938-0100. ADITI Georgetown

This Georgetown favorite is not as flashy as some of the newer Indian restaurants, nor does its menu break new ground, but it executes the standard Indian dishes well, and its prices are very reasonable.

Good starters include bhajia, vegetables dipped in a batter and deep fried; Malabar prawn, sautéed with Indian spices; and kofta kebab, skewered balls of ground meat cooked in the tandoor.

The tandoori chicken on the bone makes you remember why the dish is so popular. The flesh, flavorful from its marination in yogurt and spices, emerges from the intense heat of the tandoor moist and delicious. Many Indian restaurants assume Americans don't like hot food, but "hot" here means just that. Perhaps the spiciest dish on the menu is the superb lamb vindaloo, spiked with vinegar. Chilli Chicken, in a sauce of fresh coriander, green chilies, and herbs, is delicious. Malabar Fish Curry is a subtle combination of fish, coconut milk, and spices. Don't forget the very good Indian breads--an assorted basket brings you Pudhina Paratha, flavored with mint leaves; onion kulcha; and puffy, deep-fried poori.

Aditi, 3299 M St., NW; 202-625-6825. A LA LUCIA Alexandria

Critic's Choice

Owned by Michael Nayeri, the longtime maître d' at Galileo, this is a superb neighborhood restaurant. Its success has prompted Nayeri to expand the dining room and add a wine store. The draw will remain the southern Italian food.

Good starters are the small meatballs and soft polenta, mussels in tomato sauce, fried calamari, and roasted peppers with olive oil, capers, black olives, and anchovies. Or consider the hearty lentil or bean soups or the lighter endive-and-Gorgonzola salad with balsamic vinegar.

Pastas, served al dente, are very good. Try the pappardelle with veal ragu, the house-made manicotti with spinach and ricotta layered with béchamel, or the penne alla putanesca. Good main courses at the lower end of the price range are the veal stew with soft polenta and the breast of chicken with mushrooms, mustard, and cream sauce.

The gelati and the sorbetti are excellent endings. For lunch try the panini or the pizzas. The intelligent wine list starts at $18 for a bottle; four whites and four reds are offered by the glass at $6.50 and up.

A la Lucia, 315 Madison St., Alexandria; 703-836-5123. AMMA INDIAN VEGETARIAN KITCHEN Georgetown

This second-story Georgetown restaurant is devoted to the vegetarian cooking of southern India, and the prices are astonishingly low. Two of the specialties, not often found on tandoori-oriented Indian-restaurant menus, are uttapams and dosas. The uttapam is a rice-and-lentil-flour pancake, served simply with sambar and chutney or topped with onions, chilies, or mixed vegetables. Dosas are impressively large Indian "crepes" wrapped around a variety of fillings and served with sambar and coconut chutney. They are priced from $4.59 for a plain one to $7.59 for one filled with house-made cheese.

Among the curries, the one made of chickpeas and potatoes is a standout. Beverages include yogurt-based lassis, juices, tea, and beer and wine.

Amma Indian Vegetarian Kitchen, 3291-A M St., NW; 202-625-6625. BENJARONG Rockville

Cheap and chic aren't always compatible, but this Thai eatery is both. Stylish light fixtures, wood carvings, and fresh flowers make for an eye-catching dining room, and prices belie the artsy plates and quality ingredients found in dishes classic or creative. Spicy Thai salads--we like the grilled beef with lemongrass and chilies--are beautifully done, as are crispy spring rolls with savory bits of chicken and carrot in every bite. Be on the lookout for an occasional special of plump chive dumplings, a Thai delicacy.

The restaurant is known for its deep-fried dishes, most notably one made with duck. Equally good is the whole-fish preparation with garlic and chilies. Curry fans will want to dip into spicy red duck curry or gaeng keow wan, a tasty seafood stew with green chili and coconut. For the noodle crowd, there's pad Thai and savory pad see eew, made with chewy, ultra-wide noodles. Mango with sticky rice is the classic finish.

Benjarong Thai Restaurant, 885 Rockville Pike (Wintergreen Plaza), Rockville; 301-424-5533. No Sunday lunch. BOB'S NOODLE Rockville

Critic's Choice

You could dine at Bob's every night for a month and not have the same dish twice. With prices so low, experimenting with unknowns on the big Taiwanese menu is virtually risk-free. Five-flavor snapper, shredded beef with chili, pork chop with scallion sauce, Chinese watercress with garlic--all are easy to love. The adventurous might try the odd but addictive loofah with dried baby shrimp or the surprisingly good duck tongues with ginger and basil. For diners so inclined, there's a list centering on intestines, kidneys, and the like.

Kids will love the papaya milkshake--really a bubble drink with gargantuan tapioca balls--and dessert: a volcanolike mound of shaved ice flooded with taro, lychee, and red-bean syrups. If Bob's around, don't be shy about enlisting his aid in putting together the Taiwanese meal of a lifetime.

Bob's Noodle, 305 N. Washington St., Rockville; 301-315-6668. No credit cards. BOMBAY BISTRO Rockville, Fairfax

Critic's Choice

You might be tempted to make a meal of tandoori flatbreads and musky dal, the Indian lentil dish, which is worthy of star status. But then you would miss such gems as spiced mussels in coconut milk, spicy lamb with cilantro, and yogurt-marinated whole fish--usually rockfish--cooked in the tandoor. More-familiar classics like southern Indian dosas, searing northern Indian lamb vindaloo, and coconut shrimp curry are deftly done. And the puffy Indian bread known as poori is rave-worthy.

Service is gracious, and both restaurants have avid enough followings to make dinner reservations a must on weekends. Fairfax has the bigger, flashier dining room; Rockville sports an open kitchen. Both are done up bazaar-style with Indian fabrics, jewelry, and art.

Bombay Bistro, 98 W. Montgomery Ave., Rockville, 301-762-8798; 3570 Chain Bridge Rd., Fairfax, 703-359-5810. BOMBAY CURRY COMPANY Alexandria

Some Indian restaurants have moved upscale, but this isn't one of them. Bombay Curry Company, along with Minerva, also in Northern Virginia, offers the simple pleasures of authentic Indian food at low prices.

The menu is short but varied. Good appetizers are the potato-onion fritters called bhaji and the chat papri, a many-textured salad that includes yogurt and chickpeas. The tandoor turns out wonderfully bronzed chicken along with a variety of meats and seafood. Other good choices are the spicy lamb vindaloo, chicken curry with lentils, moderately seasoned fenugreek-laced fish curry from the former Portuguese colony of Goa, rich and creamy butter chicken, and several kinds of biryani. Vegetable selections include curries based on potatoes, eggplant, cauliflower, chickpeas, and spinach with house-made cheese. Breads, which range from the simple naan and roti to the crunchy onion kulcha, are excellent.

Bombay Curry Company, 3110 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-836-6363. BOMBAY TANDOOR Vienna

Many Indian restaurants offer a luncheon buffet that is usually a good deal. Dishes usually include curries that continue to improve in flavor as sauces seep into the meats or vegetables. Along with the curries come tandoori chicken on the bone and a few other dishes that good restaurants replenish before they go stale.

Bombay Tandoor has one of the better luncheon offerings. For $8.95 to $9.95 diners can eat all they want of tandoori chicken, butter chicken, goat curry, southern Indian idli with sambar, several vegetarian curries, rice, breads, and a dessert. Whether you choose the buffet or order from the menu you will enjoy a pleasing setting with comfortable chairs.

The menu includes the usual preparations plus such dishes as tandoori lamb chops; prawns masaledar, sautéed with ginger, garlic, onions, and tomatoes; and chicken kadhai, stir-fried with ginger, garlic, cilantro, and diced tomatoes. Prices are moderate--chicken and most lamb dishes average $12, vegetarian dishes a little less, seafood and tandoori lamb chops a little more.

Bombay Tandoor, 8603 Westwood Center Dr., Vienna; 703-734-2202. BREAD LINE Downtown DC

"It's a zoo," said the woman as she struggled to place her order, claim it, pay her bill, and find a seat. Lunch at the Bread Line is not a restful experience. Regulars put up with the barely controlled chaos to eat what are arguably the best sandwiches in town. Owner Mark Furstenberg is first of all a baker, and his popular sandwich shop on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House is devoted to bread and bread-based foods from around the world.

Specials vary from day to day and season to season. A recent Monday brought an unusual and delicious chicken-and-fennel piadina on freshly grilled bread and a spectacular Italian-sausage sandwich with a tangle of grilled onions bound with melted cheese. In tomato season it's worth a trip to the Bread Line for the best BLT in town--ripe tomato and smoky bacon on toasted brioche. There's also a selection of salads, soups, and sweets. The best strategy is to go early or late, but it might be worth a struggle at noontime to get one of those BLTs.

Bread Line, 1751 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-822-8900. Open Monday through Friday until 3:30 PM. BUBBA'S BAR-B-Q Falls Church

This Bubba isn't from the mountains of North Carolina--he's originally from Iran with a stopover in Memphis to sharpen his craft. The statuettes of pigs announce that the restaurant is dedicated to the enjoyment of pork. But brisket, chicken, smoked beef, burgers, and deli also are specialties.

The ribs come both dry style, with the spices rubbed into the meat, and wet, with a Memphis-style sauce, at $19.95 for a full rack and $9.95 for a half rack, along with two sides. If you like your ribs tart, order them dry and experiment with the sauces on the counter, which are tomato based, mustard based, and vinegar. Other pork offerings include classic pulled smoked pork, Carolina minced pork, and minced smoked pork. These are worth a try, as are the barbecue chicken and the shaved smoked brisket. There is an Atkins special--the meal without bread--and several deli sandwiches. Sides are what you'd expect. Beverages are cheaper than you'd expect. A 16-ounce draft is $1.95, a bottle of Sam Adams is $2.75, a pitcher of draft is $3.95, a 16-ounce fountain drink and coffee are $1.25.

Bubba's Bar-B-Q, 7810-F Lee Hwy., Falls Church (Merrifalls Plaza); 703-560-8570. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner. BURMA RESTAURANT Chinatown

Its second-floor location makes it hard to spot from the street, but this durable Chinatown restaurant, specializing in the cuisine of Burma, is worth seeking out. Much of the cooking will be familiar to anyone who knows other Southeast Asian cuisines, but there are a few unusual specialties. One is the pickled green-tea-leaf salad, mixed with ground shrimp and ground peanuts, a delicious mixture of unfamiliar flavors.

Another characteristic Burmese dish is pickled mustard-green leaves with a choice of shrimp, pork, or chicken--the pork is especially delicious. From the main courses on the menu, two dishes worth trying are the spicy Burmese Mango Pork and an even spicier beef curry.

Burma Restaurant, 740 Sixth St., NW; 202-638-1280. No lunch on weekends. Call to arrange wheelchair access. CACTUS CANTINA Cleveland Park

Critic's Choice

The popular Cactus Cantina in Cleveland Park has the same ownership as its even more popular sister establishment, Lauriol Plaza near Dupont Circle, and a nearly identical menu. One reason for the restaurants' success is they just do things better than their Tex-Mex competition. It starts with the basket of warm, crisp tortilla chips and bowl of spicy salsa that immediately arrive at your table, a great accompaniment to the tart margaritas.

You can see what sets these restaurants apart if you order beef fajitas. Overcooked and dry at many places, here the beef is grilled over a mesquite fire and beautifully pink in the center. Grilled meat and seafood are a specialty here. Grilled shrimp are plump and perfectly cooked. Quails are marinated in herbs and emerge from the grill with a crisp skin and moist flesh. Even the often-abused chicken breast is moist and delicious. It's no wonder that on weekends, and often during the week, you're likely to have to wait for a table--but that's pleasant enough in the bar.

Cactus Cantina, 3300 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-686-7222. CAFE DIVAN Georgetown

This stylish Turkish restaurant makes good use of its location on a triangular piece of land across from the Georgetown Safeway. Windows on two sides of the triangle allow a lot of light during the day and make it feel very urban in the evenings.

In addition to the usual mezze--hummus, baba ghanoush, and stuffed grape leaves--Cafe Divan has more-unusual offerings such as sliced chicken with walnut sauce, a spicy salad of red lentils and cracked wheat, and a delicious patty of lightly fried zucchini with eggs, tomato, and hot spices. Doner kebab, made one day a week at many Turkish restaurants, is a daily offering here and is available as a sandwich. Other good kebab choices are a tender and flavorful lamb kebab and a yogurtlu kebab with beef and a tasty yogurt sauce. For lighter appetites, there's a menu of pide, Middle Eastern pizzas cooked in a wood-burning oven. The toppings--feta, lamb, eggplant, spinach--are a nice change from the usual Italian fare.

Cafe Divan, 1834 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-338-1747. CAFE MONTI Alexandria

If Cafe Monti seems a lot like Cafe Tirolo in Ballston, it's no accident. Vic Kriedl opened both, then sold Cafe Monti to his former employees. The new owners can hold their heads high. The food is Austrian-Italian, and just about everything, including desserts, is house-made. Decor is plain. Orders are placed at a counter in front of the burners and ovens; servers deliver the dishes. It's a place with lots of regulars who like the good food, low prices, and friendly atmosphere.

Except for Wiener schnitzel and veal scallopine, main courses are under $12; a few of the pastas are just $8.50. Eminently drinkable wine is $12.95 to $14.95 for a full carafe.

Good Italian choices are linguine with clams and a white sauce, cannelloni stuffed with ground veal, pennette with fresh tomatoes, basil, garlic, and onion, and grilled Italian sausage with green peppers, onions, and spaghetti. Both the Wiener schnitzel with roast potatoes and the Austrian goulash with bread dumplings are winners.

Behind the counter, desserts beckon: house-made Italian-style cheesecake, blueberry tart, pear tart, and crème caramel, all under $4. The espresso is a fine way to finish.

Cafe Monti, 3250 Duke St., Alexandria; 703-370-3632. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, Monday through Saturday for dinner. CAFé OLé Tenleytown

Critic's Choice

This colorful bistro has matured since its opening almost ten years ago. Originally you ordered and picked up your food at the counter, but there's now table service for dinner and brunch. Located near the Tenleytown Cineplex Odeon movie theaters, Café Olé serves up a mezze-style menu from around the Mediterranean.

The menu recommends three mezze per person, but two will satisfy average appetites. Particularly good choices among the hot mezze are the Shepherd's Pie Olé with a Mediterranean-style beef stew under mashed potatoes; the Lebanese Celebration, grilled chicken served over bulgur wheat and topped with hummus and lemon-pepper aïoli; and Sultan's Stew, beef and black beans over rice with a yogurt sauce.

Most items on the menu are available for takeout at very reasonable prices--Lebanese Celebration for ten, for example, is just $65. Café Olé also caters.

Café Olé, 4000 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-244-1330. CAFÉ PARISIEN EXPRESS Arlington

For years Lydie and Yannis Stefanopoulos have run their modest establishment with a high level of professionalism. Lydie is French and learned her craft cooking for her family. Yannis is Greek and learned his craft working at the Mayflower Hotel and elsewhere. The decor is mostly French posters. The plates and flatware are plastic. Service consists of placing your order at a counter and having the food brought to you or getting a buzz summoning you back to the counter. Everything is house-made, except for the cheesecake.

The menu is heavy on sandwiches, salads, quiches, and crepes. A meal of onion soup and a quiche or a sandwich costs barely $10. Escargots are served embedded in slices of baguette for $6.45. The menu lists steak frites, a seven-ounce sirloin with French fries, for $12.45. For main courses consult the blackboard. You'll always find a fresh fish of the day as well as such dishes as beef bourguignon, roast chicken, and coq au vin, and possibly something more elaborate. Fine desserts include crepes and a cake and a tart du jour. Most of the wines are $18 a bottle; the reds are likely too warm, but the staff will cool them.

Café Parisien Express, 4520 Lee Hwy., Arlington; 703-525-3332. Open Monday through Saturday for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Sunday for brunch. No credit cards; checks accepted with proper ID. CAFé SPICE Gaithersburg

With its boho-chic look, zippy menu of regional Indian delicacies, and exotic India-inspired martinis, this cafe has a huge under-thirty following. But families like the place, too. It's noisy enough and casual enough to accommodate a squirmy toddler. Outdoor tables alongside a man-made lake stocked with geese make it a great warm-weather find. Tops on the starters roster are petite dosas filled with chicken or potatoes; shrimp with ginger sauce and fried cilantro; and house-made cheese layered with mint paste.

Memorable main courses include Goan fish curry made with tilapia; lamb with coconut and chilies; and chicken chettinad perfumed with curry leaves and mustard seed. Though the biryanis taste more Western than Indian, they are sprightly jumbles nevertheless. Mango martinis and traditional lassis cool things down nicely. For dessert, try one of the area's better renditions of gulab jamun, crunchy cheese fritters in sugar syrup.

Café Spice, Rio Entertainment Center, 9811 Washingtonian Blvd., Gaithersburg; 301-330-6611. CAFE TIROLO Arlington

Tucked in the corner of a modern office building, this is a place to dine well on a budget. The food is Italian and Austrian--the menu includes staples of both cuisines, including pizza, pasta, veal scallopine, Wiener schnitzel, and Austrian goulash with bread dumplings. Appetizers start at $3.95; main courses average $10 for pasta, $13 for meat. Service is minimal but cordial--you place your order at a counter, the food is delivered. The cooking is excellent.

After cooking in much of Europe, chef Vic Kreidl became the chef at Tiberio, an upscale K Street Italian restaurant that was hot a generation ago. At Cafe Tirolo, it's all but impossible to go wrong. Pastas are cooked to order. Try the house-made fettuccine with cream sauce or linguine with clams. The grilled salmon with shallot butter sauce, potatoes, and green beans is a good bet, but so are the veal scallopine with lemon butter and the goulash. Always worth considering are the daily specials, such as pork loin with garlic caraway sauce.

Desserts are house-made. The Viennese apple strudel and the almond pear tart are among the best. There are good beers from Europe and satisfactory wines as low as $13.95 for a full carafe. In good weather there is outside dining.

Cafe Tirolo, 4001 N. Fairfax Dr., Arlington; 703-528-7809. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, Monday through Thursday for dinner. CAPITAL Q Chinatown

DC's Chinatown might seem like an odd location for a barbecue joint, but the sign over the door in Chinese doesn't mean that Nick Fontana doesn't produce the best Texas-style barbecue in town. He even takes advantage of his location by offering a Chinese Cowboy Platter--rice topped with the diner's choice of meat.

Capital Q's offerings include pork, chicken, and sausage, but the star of the show is the brisket, rubbed with a blend of dry spices and smoked for 12 hours over an oak and hickory fire. Tender, smoky, and delicious, it's available on sandwiches, on a plate with two sides, or as takeout. Don't neglect the sides--good potato salad, Texas Caviar made from black-eyed peas, and spicy jalapeño cornbread.

Capital Q, 707 H St., NW; 202-347-8396. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner until 9 weekdays and 10 Friday and Saturday. CHINA GARDEN Rosslyn

This place is on the mezzanine of an office building, and it is a celebration place for many in the Chinese-American community. Before you head to China Garden for a Sunday dinner, call to see if a wedding party has preempted the premises. On other evenings, one Chinese society or another may have a dinner, so you might find yourself watching a dragon display along with the society's members.

Go to China Garden for dinner or weekend dim sum, not weekday lunch, when the food is good but not special. Saturday and Sunday mornings at 11:30, a first-rate Cantonese dim sum draws crowds of Chinese and others. In the evenings there's an ambitious menu. Try stir-fried clams with hot chilies and black-bean sauce; fresh crab with ginger and scallions; pan-fried whole flounder; steamed rockfish with ginger and scallions; whole roast squab Cantonese style; king-do pork spareribs, which are really small pork chops; and sizzling chicken with eggplant in a casserole.

China Garden, 1100 Wilson Blvd., Rosslyn; 703-525-5317. CHINA STAR Fairfax

This Szechuan place serves its share of Chinese-American standards such as sweet-and-sour pork and beef with broccoli, but there are also authentic dishes. One complaint is that the restaurant continues to include a list of dishes solely in Chinese script--which means that patrons who do not read Chinese can miss out on the likes of pork with bitter melon and chicken with leeks.

Good appetizers are room-temperature salty duck, mixed-flavor chicken, and five-spice bean curd. For the main course, turn to the sections titled Entrées and Home-Style Entrées. Consider ordering fish with sour mustard, beef stir-fried with wild peppers, filet mignon with sour mustard, spicy beef shank, Lake Windless prawns, or princess pig's feet. The menu indicates hotness via a system of chili peppers and stars.

China Star, 9600-G Main St., Fairfax (Fair City Mall); 703-323-8822. CHINATOWN EXPRESS Chinatown

Critic's Choice

It's easy to locate this restaurant by the crowd out front watching the noodle chef in the window. With impressive dexterity he stretches noodle dough, folds it back on itself several times, and snaps it to make it fall apart into strands of floury noodles. The Fresh Noodle Made on the Spot may be ordered stir-fried with chicken, beef, or seafood, or in a soup.

The other specialties of Chinatown Express, all worth ordering, are Fresh Dumpling Made on the Spot, filled with leeks, seafood, or vegetables, and Shanghai soup dumplings. Each of the small dumplings is filled with broth, which makes eating them challenging but rewarding. Beyond noodles and dumplings is a lengthy menu of Cantonese favorites plus a few house specialities. Some of the best are the sautéed lobster--within the budget if you watch what else you order--an eggplant casserole, and the House Special Chicken (half) with a delicious crisp skin.

Chinatown Express, 746 Sixth St., NW; 202-638-0424. COPPI'S ORGANIC U Street

You have to order carefully to get out of this lively U Street pizza parlor and organic restaurant with a bill of less than $50 for two, but it can be done. It helps that most of the main courses are available in appetizer as well as full portions, and a couple of appetizers, or a salad and an appetizer, make a satisfying meal.

Chef Elizabeth Bright-Mattia specializes in the cooking of Luguria, the coastal region of Italy just over the border from France. The menu changes seasonally and is supplemented by daily specials featuring what's in season.

The spring menu featured a wonderful salad of fava beans with tomato, pecorino cheese, and Italian parsley. Fresh fava beans were featured again in Gnocchi Primaverili--house-made gnocchi with green peas, fava beans, young asparagus, baby artichokes, and Italian bacon. The pizza of the day, cooked in the wood-burning oven, had a hearty topping of Merguez sausage, feta, ricotta, and cucumber--an inspired combination.

Desserts vary from day to day but usually include several flavors of gelato and a calzone filled with Nutella.

Coppi's Organic, 1414 U St., NW; 202-319-7773. Open daily for dinner. CRYSTAL THAI Arlington

Located in a shopping center off Route 50, this restaurant has an attractive interior. The food is fresh and well prepared, and the prices are right.

Crystal Thai prides itself on its soft-shell crabs. The restaurant offers nine versions, including a spicy one with chili sauce and a moderately seasoned one with basil. Check the price before ordering: Soft-shell crabs have become expensive. Other high-end items worth considering are the whole crispy fish in chili sauce and the honey-roasted duck. There are plenty of dishes under $10, including pork with garlic sauce, sliced beef stir-fried with basil, onions, and chili peppers, and one of the chicken curries.

Unlike Indian curries, Thai curries are cooked in coconut milk and chili paste. They are made from red, green, and yellow chilies and include either potatoes or bamboo shoots. Many diners order the familiar pad Thai, but consider experimenting with one of the half dozen other dishes made from sautéed rice noodles.

Crystal Thai, 4819 N. First St. (off Arlington Blvd.), Arlington; 703-522-1311. CUBAN CORNER Rockville

Cuban rhythms, straw hats, and painted island hues set the scene for this casual Cuban cafe. Food is old-style homey. Start with deep-fried beef- or cheese-and-olive-filled empanadas, then move on to one of the marvelous pork dishes. Puerco asado (roast pork) and masitas de puerco (fried morsels of pork with thin-sliced raw onions) are both worthy, but the showstopper is montuno Cubano, tender chunks of pork sautéed with green olives and onions. For beef lovers, there's ropa vieja, the traditional dish made with shredded flank steak. Even better: vaca frita, a crunchy heap of shredded beef and onions.

Red snapper Cuban-style, with red and green peppers and vinegar sauce, tops the seafood list, along with camarones a la Cubano, shrimp with tomatoes, capers, and wine. Savory rice and beans accompany most plates, though plantains have been a bit scorched of late. Wash it all down with a tropical-fruit milkshake, house-made lemonade, or Hatuey beer, a Cuban-style brew. There's a handful of sweets for dessert, but a cortadito--Cuban coffee with cream--is all you really need.

Cuban Corner, 825 Hungerford Dr., Rockville; 301-279-0310. DOUGHBOYS Gaithersburg

This cafe's lineup of wood-fired pizzas, panini, and salads make for an appealing light meal any time of day. Tops among the thin-crusted, wood-oven pies are spinach with red onion and portobello, and the Grecco with sausage, feta, and kalamata olives. You can cobble together your own with toppings like caramelized onions, capers, asparagus, and goat cheese. Salads, such as arugula with bacon and caramelized almonds, become full meals with the addition of chicken or shrimp.

Panini range from the smashing Italian, with Genoa salami, mortadella, fontina, and black-olive spread, to earthy braised lamb with tahini and roasted red peppers. From the children's menu, the hot dog with melted mozzarella is a high for grownups, too. Drinks include house-made lemonade and iced tea, a couple of good draft beers, and wines by the glass and bottle. The brunch menu has at least one great find: spaghetti frittata made with sausage, spinach, mushrooms, eggs--and spaghetti. For dessert try the Café Glassé, a scoop of vanilla gelato in hot coffee with whipped cream and chocolate shavings.

Doughboys, 251 W. Market St., Gaithersburg; 301-330-3212. DRAGON CHINESE RESTAURANT Gaithersburg

A changing of the guard hasn't dampened the exuberance of this restaurant known for its authentic northern Chinese cuisine. The new owners have added some Chinese-American Greatest Hits, such as beef lo mein and Kung Pao chicken, but the Chinese expats in this persimmon-and-gray dining room hold steadfast to such delicacies as squid with pickled pepper, three-cup chicken with basil, steamed spareribs wrapped in lotus leaves, and spicy slow-roasted beef noodle soup.

If you stick to dim sum--ordered from a menu rather than plucked from a cart--dumplings with chili sauce are addictive little bundles. Also good are the baked egg cake Chengdu style--both salty and sweet versions are worth trying--tender water pork dumplings, and flaky sesame flatbread with sliced beef.

Dragon Chinese Restaurant, 227 Muddy Branch Rd., Gaithersburg; 301-330-6222. DRAGON STAR Falls Church

Critic's Choice

This up-and-coming restaurant in Seven Corners serves a variety of food at very reasonable prices in an attractive setting. It also offers one of the best deals on Heineken and Chinese beer--$2.50 at lunch and dinner, $1.50 during happy hour.

The main Cantonese menu offers oysters with black-bean sauce, pepper-salt pork chops, stir-fried snow-pea shoots, and green pepper, eggplant, or bean curd stuffed with shrimp along with scores of other preparations. A Szechuan menu lists shredded pork with garlic sauce and Kung Pao Chicken. The 40 soups include Hong Kong-style noodle soups, a soup with seaweed, ground pork, and bean curd, and the coveted shark-fin soup. Hanging on hooks are ducks, chickens, and roast pork loin. Dim sum is available for lunch and dinner seven days a week.

If there is any doubt about the freshness of the seafood, look at the tanks near the rear of the large dining room where fish, lobsters, Dungeness crabs, and other denizens of the sea can be seen.

Dragon Star, 6793 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church (Eden Center); 703-533-8340. DUANGRAT'S Falls Church

This is the area's only Best Bargain restaurant that is also one of the 24 holders of a Blue Ribbon Award for being among the Washingtonian's Very Best Restaurants. Duangrat's has added luster to the dining room with red walls and gold-leaf trim, Thai artwork, crystal chandeliers, and white tablecloths. And it's all enjoyable on a budget. Though a few main courses top $20, most are under $12. Service and presentation are first-class.

Duangrat's has a new menu of what's described as Asian tapas. Averaging about $5, they are excellent values. Try yellow-curry chicken noodle soup, curried salmon puff pastry, steamed cod filet in ginger sauce with mushrooms, salt-and-pepper fried calamari, corn-and-crabmeat soufflé, and shrimp sautéed with black-bean sauce. On the regular menu you won't go wrong with Panang chicken in a coconut peanut curry sauce with basil; a trio of quail fried with garlic, white pepper, soy sauce, and steamed broccoli; pork with fried garlic; or catfish with red-chili paste.

Duangrat's takes dessert seriously. Try the black sticky-rice pudding with taro and chocolate sorbet or the cinnamon ice cream with caramelized banana and spiced rum sauce.

Duangrat's, 5878 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church; 703-820-5775. EAT FIRST Chinatown

In some Chinese restaurants it's hard to get advice about the menu. Servers seem rushed, some speak little English to discuss the menu, and others seem to have preconceptions about what Americans want to eat. Eat First is a happy exception. The youthful servers are eager to guide you through unfamiliar dishes to seasonal specialties. Wall signs announcing specials include English translations.

Excellent choices from the regular menu include wonderful fresh shrimp, crisply fried flounder, a very good roast duck, and shrimp cake with Chinese broccoli.

Eat First, 609 H St., NW; 202-289-1703. No wheelchair access. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner until 2 AM Sunday through Thursday, until 3 AM Friday and Saturday. EL GAVILAN Silver Spring

Whether it's tacos al carbon or a pungent bowl of tripe soup that you crave, this Salvadoran cantina will take care of you. Color-splashed walls and vivid paintings dress up this intimate space; Central American bands play on the tiny stage on weekends. Familiar Tex-Mex fare includes first-rate deep-fried taquitos, soft or crispy chicken tacos, and beef fajitas.

The best of the Salvadoran offerings are custardy steamed tamales filled with pork, pupusas spilling cheese, and soups like the tripe and the even headier shrimp with bits of hard-cooked egg bobbing in the briny broth. Quesadillas and pork ribs have their fans, too. Order a round of fresh guacamole--it's much better than the dabs that show up on the combo platters.

El Gavilan, 8805 Flower Ave., Silver Spring; 301-587-4197. EL PATIO Rockville

An hour spent in this lively Argentine bakery/cafe/grocery makes for a wonderful entrée to South American culture. Soccer fans crowd around the TV, children clamor for pastries oozing dulce de leche, and everyone picks up a sack of maté, the magical do-it-all herb, for making tea. Then there's the food, starting with a lineup of Argentine sandwiches, each on its own house-baked bread. Best of the bunch are the triple deckers called migas, with various fillers; proscuitto on a soft roll called pebete; and Argentine sausage on a baguette.

There are savory tarts of ham, eggs, and cheese and spinach and Parmesan; Spanish-style tortillas, thick omelets cut in wedges and eaten at room temperature; and flaky empanadas. More substantial plates featuring grilled steak and fried fish are popular with the soccer gang. In fair weather, patrons move the party from the wrought-iron-and-mosaic tables inside to umbrella tables outdoors.

El Patio, 12303 Twinbrook Pkwy., Rockville; 301-231-9225. EL POLLO RICO Arlington, Wheaton

The way Peruvians cook chicken, you'd think that they invented the bird. Peruvians do rotisserie chicken as well as anyone. To see for yourself, join the line that stretches out the doors of these eateries. Once inside, you can watch the marinated and spiced birds rotate slowly while the fire first browns and then blisters the skin.

When you get to the head of the line, one of the staff will pluck a chicken delivered from the rotisserie and halve or quarter it, then add garnishes to the plastic plate. Choose among crisp fries, coleslaw, and tortillas. You can choose a hot sauce or a milder mustard-mayonnaise sauce, then find a table and enjoy.

El Pollo Rico offers a few other items, such as a chicken-empanada appetizer at the Wheaton location and alfajores, a shortbread cookie with a caramel filling, for dessert. But these play second fiddle to the rotisserie chicken. Soft drinks from Peru are available, including the sweet Inca Kola.

El Pollo Rico, 932 N. Kenmore St., Arlington, 703-522-3220; 2541 Ennals Ave., Wheaton, 301-942-4419. EL TAPATIO Bladensburg

The house-made tortillas are worth the trip. Regulars order an extra batch or two--they're five for $1--to take home. Happily for diners, tortillas figure in most of the Mexican dishes on the menu of this family-run eatery. You could make a meal of the warm salsa and those tortillas fried into chips, but then you'd miss such pleasures as soft chicken and pork tacos, mole enchiladas, huevos rancheros, and chilaquiles, a spectacular pileup of torn tortillas, chilies, and cheese.

The chiles rellenos--delicately battered and perfectly fried--may well set the benchmark for the area. Don't overlook the seafood and shrimp soups--bowls of flavorful broth, root vegetables, and fish. Because the kitchen is small and everything is cooked to order, service can be slow when the place is crowded, especially on weekends. But a can of Tecate topped with a slice of lime, Mexican tunes on the jukebox, and those tortilla chips will stave off hunger and help pass the time.

El Tapatio, 4309 Kenilworth Ave., Bladensburg; 301-403-8882. FARYAB AFGHAN Bethesda

Well turned out Afghan classics are the hallmark of this downtown Bethesda storefront. Stark white walls make an ideal backdrop for Afghan textiles and black-and-white photographs. Two of the must-tries of Afghan cuisine are oversize raviolis filled with scallions (aushak) or meat (mantu) and dabbed with tomato and yogurt. Also not to be missed is kadu, sautéed sweet pumpkin, again with the signature tomato and yogurt garnish.

Other pleasures include cumin-scented kofta, a fragrant eggplant stew called badenjun, and quabili pallow, rice with raisins, shredded carrots, and lamb bits, reminiscent of an Indian biryani. Less interesting are kebabs, which tend to be overcooked, the meat tough. Cardamom tea at the finish begs to be lingered over with a sweet such as elephant ears--fried rounds of dough dusted with powdered sugar.

Faryab Afghan, 4917 Cordell Ave., Bethesda; 301-951-3484. Open Tuesday through Friday for lunch, Tuesday through Sunday for dinner. FIVE GUYS Various locations

A few years ago there were three Five Guys restaurants in the area. Today there are some 20 and counting. The reason for the success? The burgers and fries are better than the competition's.

Although hot dogs and other items are available, the smart money stays with the double burgers accompanied by fries and an eye-popping condiment lineup. At $3.79, the hand-packed burgers are a treat. Although servers will not provide customers with meat less than well done, the taste and juices will make you think otherwise. Burgers are cooked when ordered, and the fries are made in small batches. Crates of Idaho or Maine potatoes indicate that this is the real thing.

The drill is simple: Go to the counter and order, specifying whether you want sautéed mushrooms, onions, bacon, jalapeños, or something else on top of your burger. While waiting for your number to be called, munch on the free peanuts in a barrel near the counter. If you're eating in, take your bag of burgers and fries to a table by way of the condiment counter.

Five Guys, several area locations; fiveguys.com. FLAVORS SOUL FOOD Falls Church

This is a homey place where regulars hang out, watch television, have a drink, and now and then stroll over to the serving counter for something to eat. With a half-dozen TV sets spread around the dining area, it's a good place to settle in and watch a game.

Because many of the dishes improve by steeping in their juices, the steam tables do no harm. The other cooking method is frying, which is done to order, so if that's your choice, relax and expect to eat a leisurely meal. There is much to enjoy. Good fried dishes are whole croaker, filets of whiting and sea trout, chicken, and pork chops, which are broad and thin with excellent breading. Meaty ribs, pork barbecue, and macaroni and cheese are good nonfried alternatives. Patrons who order a dinner platter rather than a sandwich get two sides. No surprises: Collard greens, black-eyed peas, mashed potatoes with gravy, and yams are popular. For finishing off the meal, sweet-potato pie, cakes, and fruit cobblers all have their followings.

Flavors Soul Food, 3420 Carlyn Hill Dr., Falls Church; 703-379-4411. Closed Monday. FOUR SISTERS Falls Church

Critic's Choice

Eden Center at Seven Corners is the largest concentration of Vietnamese shops in the area. On weekends the large parking area is packed. Given the competition and the Vietnamese clientele, a restaurant has to be first-rate to stand out. Four Sisters does. This family-operated restaurant--four sisters, two brothers, and their parents take part--is one of the most popular places to eat. It is large, airy, and often packed.

Whether you go for the standards or more exotic dishes, you won't be disappointed. Try the crispy spring rolls and shrimp toast but also sample the mahogany-colored roast quail, grilled beef wrapped in grape leaves, smoky baby clams with crisp sesame-studded rice crackers, and green-papaya salad with shrimp and pork. Main-course treats include caramelized chicken, pork, or catfish in a clay pot; shrimp sautéed with ginger and scallions; chicken with lemongrass and curry; pork with sour cabbage; and beef sautéed with eggplant. For an even better bargain order one of the 40 main-course soups or a serving of meat or seafood on rice or rice vermicelli.

Four Sisters (Huong Que), 6769 Wilson Blvd. (Eden Center), Falls Church; 703-538-6717. FULL KEE Chinatown

This fine Chinese restaurant was closed for remodeling, and when it reopened, its fans were delighted to find it as good as ever. Now another uncertainty looms: The restaurant has new owners. The first several months have seen no change in the quality of the cooking.

Some dishes at Full Kee are so good that it's hard to visit there without ordering them. One is the Hong Kong-style shrimp-dumpling soup--thin wrappers packed with shrimp and floating in a bowl of rich broth. A bowl is plenty for a light meal, but it's also almost impossible not to order the oyster casserole with ginger and scallions. Other good dishes include clams in black-bean sauce, snow-pea leaves stir-fried with garlic, chicken-and-eggplant casserole, and tofu stuffed with shrimp.

Full Kee, 509 H St., NW; 202-371-2233. Cash only. No wheelchair access. GOOD FORTUNE Wheaton

Heaven may well be a dim sum cart laden with shark-fin dumplings, roast-pork buns, and eight-treasure sweet rice in lotus leaves. This divine fare is served up every Saturday and Sunday from a fleet of dim sum carts that make their way around Good Fortune's two dining rooms; during the week you can order off a menu.

On weekends, the earlier you arrive the better, or you might miss out on the pan-fried pork and chive dumplings, chicken feet with black-bean sauce, or sweet fried sesame-seed dumplings, China's answer to carnival-style fried dough. You'd still have the vast Cantonese menu to dabble in. Make a meal of succulent squab in dark-brown soy sauce, oysters with ginger and scallions, Hong Kong-style chow mein, and Chinese watercress with garlic. Heaven, after all, takes many forms.

Good Fortune, 2646 University Blvd., Wheaton; 301-929-8818. GUAJILLO Rosslyn

If you arrive early for a meal at Ray's the Steaks, the steakhouse next door, consider relaxing with one of this restaurant's large margaritas. It may not be the perfect introduction to a sirloin dinner, but you'll get a good bargain. The drinks are huge, the salsa tangy, and tortilla chips crisp.

Those who stay to dine will find that the menu is not long, but it covers plenty of ground. The customary appetizers of nachos, queso fundidto, tamales, and guacamole are very good. For the main course, the star of the menu is chicken mole, made with a complex sauce of unsweetened chocolate, chilies, cumin, cinnamon, and other spices coating a chicken breast. Its texture and intensity make it a standout. The standard main courses of tacos, enchiladas, burritos, and chimichangas measure up to the competition, as do sautéed shrimp and fajitas, whether steak, chicken, or shrimp. The beverage list includes lots of tequilas.

Guajillo, 1727 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-807-0840. Closed for Saturday lunch. GUAJIRO Silver Spring

Across the street from the AFI Silver theater, Guajiro is a low-key spot with some of the area's best Cuban food. The Cuban sandwich is perfect--grilled under weights, crusty on the outside, and filled with unusually flavorful roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard. A similar sandwich features nothing but that fabulous pork--and a lick of mojo criollo.

The closet-size kitchen also turns out piquant ropa vieja, the shredded-beef dish zipped up with red and green pepper, and picadillo, a sort of Cuban hash with ground beef and olives. And there's pork in other guises: slow roasted and crusty or marinated and fried with an avalanche of thin-sliced onions. Fried items can be a bit greasy, but rice and black beans are as good as they get.

Guajiro, 8650 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring; 301-565-4985. HALF MOON BAR-B-QUE Silver Spring

Show up late, say around 9:30 on a night when someone like J.P. McDermott is playing, and you'll be lucky to corral a seat at the bar. But regulars know that if they want to eat at this happening blues-and-rockabilly bar in downtown Silver Spring, the dinner hour is the time to arrive. Even then, this isn't a speedy operation. The kitchen wants to get it right, and it usually does.

Just about everything out of the hickory-stoked smoker is mighty fine--North Carolina pulled pork, Memphis ribs, Texas-style hot links and brisket. But best of all is the smoked quarter chicken, so moist and tender it doesn't even need barbecue sauce, though a pert vinegary brew is available. It well may be the best barbecue bird in the area. Sides of choice are hand-cut boardwalk-style French fries, zesty potato salad, slaw, and bitingly vinegary collards.

Half Moon Bar-B-Que, 8235 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring; 301-585-1290. HOLLYWOOD EAST CAFé Wheaton

There's a lot to love at these always crowded Hong Kong-style eateries. The new Hollywood East Café on the Boulevard features an outdoor patio and dim sum on weekends--order off the menu during the week--with classics like pork buns and shark's-fin dumplings, plus special tidbits like deep-fried lobster roll and mango-shrimp roll.

Beyond dim sum, the regular menu of flavorful soups, delicious roast meats, and offbeat casseroles is available at both locations. You might linger over a plate of crispy pork or soy-sauce chicken, or nibble on snow-pea leaves with garlic and Chinese watercress with shrimp paste. The spicy eggplant-and-ground-pork casserole is one of the more memorable bowls of comfort around. And crispy shredded tofu might make you see bean curd in a whole new light. Lovers of funky plates like cold jellyfish with shredded duck have a whole roster of esoterica to choose from.

Hollywood East Café, 2312 Price Ave., Wheaton, 301-942-8282; Hollywood East Café on the Boulevard, 2621 University Blvd. W., Wheaton, 240-290-9988. HUNAN PALACE Gaithersburg

The crystal-chandeliered dining room with Chinese still lifes is more glamorous than most, but the Chinese fare is as authentic as it comes. Despite the name, the Taiwanese and Shanghai cooking is the reason to make the trip--though more-familiar Hunan and Szechuan dishes can be had, too. Look to the Chef's Specialties on the Chinese menu for delicate pan-fried lily-flower root and wonderfully chewy conch with white leeks. Other savory picks range from fiery beef short ribs in black-pepper sauce to Hong Kong-style stir-fried clams in black-bean sauce.

Tanks of tilapia, lobster, and, in season, Vancouver crabs mean marvelous seafood preparations--though unless you order judiciously, you can blow the Cheap Eats budget. Vancouver crab with ginger and scallions is worth cutting corners elsewhere. At the other end of the price spectrum are the Hong Kong-style soups--we like the shrimp dumpling and noodle--that are a steal at $5.50 for a generous bowlful.

Hunan Palace, 9011 Gaither Rd., Gaithersburg; 301-977-8600. JASMINE GARDEN Falls Church

It takes a while to recognize the quality and versatility of this restaurant. There is a sushi bar just inside the entryway. The sushi ranges from familiar items to such creations as a crunchy, spicy tuna roll made with minced radish. A look at the menu reveals specialties from Thailand and Malaysia prepared by another chef. There also is a Chinese chef who previously taught cooking classes in the Szechuan province.

If you're interested in something unusual, ask manager Lawrence Liang. He'll recommend a dish you've never seen before, like partially deboned spareribs with rice powder, turnips, and soybeans, or an old favorite like beef with scallions or scallops in garlic sauce. Formerly an owner of a French-Italian restaurant, he has assembled an impressive wine list. What's a good wine for sushi? Try a Pinot Noir. A splurge? The Rodney Strong Reserve Cabernet '99 for $69.95.

Ask about the special entertainment evenings, which may include opera arias. Owner Robin Wang is an opera singer who's getting her PhD in music from the University of Maryland.

Jasmine Garden, 8106 Arlington Blvd. (Yorktown Shopping Center), Falls Church; 703-208-9989. LA PIAZZA Alexandria

Owner Carlo Pacarella comes to Alexandria from Italy by way of New Jersey, where he and his wife, Cinzia Ramundo, honed their skills. Their Alexandria venture is a small place that knows what it's about. Patrons order at a counter, sit down at one of the few tables, and await their food. The menu is short. With rare exceptions, everything's on the mark. As a result the restaurant has a loyal following among its neighbors and commuters from the Braddock Road Metro station.

Salads are a strength, whether the small house salad, spring mix and romaine lettuce in a first-rate vinaigrette, or one of the larger salads that can serve as the main course of a light luncheon. Pastas are king, and the list is long. At around $10 for dinner and $7 or $8 for lunch, they are good deals, especially considering that a house salad and good garlic bread are included. Along with simple spaghetti and meatballs or a more ambitious wild-mushroom ravioli, the menu includes such staples as veal and peppers or veal parmigiana for $10.50. Hot and cold subs are other good choices. Wines are $15 to $18 a bottle, $4 a glass.

La Piazza, 535 E. Braddock Rd., Alexandria; 703-519-7711. Closed Sunday. LAURIOL PLAZA Dupont Circle

It's rare to pass Lauriol Plaza on a weekend without seeing a line of people on the sidewalk waiting for a table. Part of its appeal is its outdoor dining space--on the sidewalk and a roof deck. But more than that, Lauriol Plaza almost defines what a Cheap Eats restaurant should be--large portions of good food at fair prices. Like its sister restaurant, Cactus Cantina, Lauriol Plaza is a cut above most of its Tex-Mex competition.

The usual tacos, enchiladas, and chimichangas offer very good value for the money, but the real treats are the meats grilled over a mesquite fire. Fajitas are cooked to a tender medium rare; quail are succulent and burnished to a lovely mahagony brown; chicken is tender and moist. Any of these, with the accompanying flour tortillas, rice, beans, and guacamole--and perhaps a Dos Equis or a margarita--make for a great bargain meal.

Lauriol Plaza, 1835 18th St., NW; 202-387-0035. LEBANESE TAVERNA CAFé Rockville, Silver Spring, Annapolis

Mediterranean hues and eye-catching design make these engaging cafes seem like more of an occasion than your typical order-at-the-counter casuals. Spinoffs of the popular Lebanese Taverna restaurants in DC and Virginia, the cafes focus on the Taverna's greatest hits. The Supreme Feast for Two ($29.95) is a grazer's dream--it makes you feel like a pasha before a buffet of delicacies: seven dishes of mezze--think grape leaves filled rolled with rice and chickpeas and hummus gilded with ground meat and nuts--lamb and chicken kebabs, bread, rice, dessert, and drinks.

If this seems like an invitation to excess, one of the fatteh plates--jumbles of chickpeas, toasted pita, and yogurt sauce layered with chicken, eggplant, or lamb--will satisfy without giving you that too-full feeling. The cafe also does a great lamb shank and rotisserie chicken with an intense garlic sauce on the side.

Lebanese Taverna Café, 1605 Rockville Pike, Rockville, 301-468-9086; 933 Ellsworth Dr., Silver Spring, 301-588-1192; 2478 Solomons Island Rd., Annapolis, 410-897-1111. LEI GARDEN Chinatown

Lei Garden presents its diners with options. You can order from the menu in the downstairs dining room. Upstairs, dim sum is served from rolling carts from 11:30 to 3 daily. If you go for the dim sum, arrive early. The selection wanes as the serving period progresses.

The main menu presents a large selection of mostly Szechuan dishes. It proclaims the Szechuan Very Spicy Boiled Beef the "best in town," and it's very good indeed: a casserole with sliced beef, Napa cabbage, and green chilies. Other worthwhile choices are the duet of shrimp and scallops in a ginger-and-garlic sauce; Hot & Spicy Combo Delight--beef, shrimp, scallop, and chicken cooked with mushrooms; orange beef; and the tangy Yu-Shion Chicken with garlic, ginger, and vinegar.

Lei Garden, 629 H St., NW; 202-216-9696. LUCKY THREE Falls Church

The name of this restaurant? It's the third--and therefore lucky--Chinese restaurant to open at the site, following Fortune and Maxim's. And patrons can choose among three dining options--the long dinner menu, the elaborate weekend dim sum service on rolling carts, and the very impressive luncheon buffet on weekdays. The food and prices are exemplary. The proprietors also own the award-winning New Fortune in Gaithersburg.

The weekday luncheon buffet offers the likes of shrimp in the shell, hard-shelled crabs, clams in black-bean sauce, and several varieties of freshly made dim sum along with a number of noodle dishes, stir-fried meats, and vegetables. It's a good idea to arrive early--not all of the special dishes are replenished. The weekend Cantonese dim sum is one of the best around, and it's no secret--despite the huge size of the restaurant, you may find yourself waiting at prime time. The regular dinner menu is large--as are the portions. Recent experiences included a hot pot of minced pork and eggplant in a hot sauce, whole steamed fish in brown sauce, and baby beef ribs with black pepper.

Lucky Three, 5900 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church; 703-998-8888. MALAYSIA KOPITIAM Downtown DC

Critic's Choice

The best bargain restaurants are almost always the result of the owners' dedication and vision: Consider Peter Pastan's 2 Amys, Jessie Yan's Spices and Nooshi, Elizabeth Bright and Pierre Mattia's Coppi's Organic. Nowhere is this truer than at Malaysia Kopitiam, where Penny Phoon's good cooking and Leslie Phoon's gracious hospitality create a restaurant of quality and charm.

The names of Malaysian dishes might be unfamiliar, but diners familiar with the cooking of India and China will recognize many of the dishes and flavors. To help, Leslie Phoon has compiled a loose-leaf notebook with photographs of each dish. One of the best ways for a group to order is to tell Penny Phoon what you'd like to spend per person and whether anyone has allergies or strong dislikes, and she will come up with a very good menu. Recent treats have included a lovely baby oyster omelet, crispy squid salad with lemongrass dressing, Chicken Rendang in a curry-flavored sauce with coconut milk, and grilled fish served in a banana leaf.

Malaysia Kopitiam, 1827 M St., NW; 202-833-6232. MAMA AYESHA'S Adams Morgan

There have been changes at this much-loved Lebanese restaurant over the years, but they occur at a comfortably slow pace. A recent visit found Helen Thomas still in her favorite booth with a group of friends, the hospitality just as warm, and the food just as good and inexpensive. Start with hummus--the version with ground lamb and pine nuts is delicious--baba ghanoush, or lebnah, a creamy cheese made from strained yogurt.

Lots of choices follow: a flavorful Middle Eastern variety of squash stuffed with ground lamb; grape leaves stuffed with a flavorful mixture of rice, tomatoes, herbs, and spices; kebabs of lamb, chicken, or ground beef; a tender, long-cooked lamb shank; and musakan, a half chicken baked with onions, pine nuts, and sumac. The wine list offers a good selection of drinkable and inexpensive Lebanese wines.

Mama Ayesha's, 1967 Calvert St., NW; 202-232-5431. MANDALAY Silver Spring

Mandalay's original humble quarters in College Park have given way to roomier, more contemporary digs in Silver Spring. The menu of Malaysian dishes remains long and varied. Start with the Baya Gyaw Thoke fritter salad, a wonder of crunch and flavor with carrots, cabbage, crushed peanuts, and those pop-in-your-mouth fritters. Vegetarians have lots of choices, from lightly fried tofu in lush coconut-cream curry to eggplant in an onion-based curry shot with fresh cilantro.

Nanjee Thoke is fireworks in a bowl: thick rice noodles and chicken steeped in spicy red-curry sauce. Pork chunks in pickled-mango curry is a complex dish that evokes India, and chicken sautéed with bitter melon and onion is unusual yet delicious. Wine and beer are available, but purists sip YayNway Gyan, made from hand-picked green-tea leaves from the Myanmar mountains.

Mandalay, 930-932 Bonifant St., Silver Spring; 301-585-0500. MANILA CAFE Springfield

Among the cuisines represented here, many diners will find the cooking of the Philippines the most exotic. But the hints of Southeast Asia and the Caribbean in the cooking, and the presence of such dishes as roast chicken and fried fish, make just about anyone feel at home.

The restaurant offers a combination of buffet-style dining from steam tables and made-to-order dishes. A weekend buffet for $12.50 introduces diners to the variety of the cooking. Offerings include a whole suckling pig with crisp skin and tender meat; afritada, sautéed chicken with potatoes and bell peppers in a tomato sauce; adobo, pieces of chicken and pork braised in vinegar and soy sauce; ampalaya con carne, bitter melon sautéed with beef and black-bean sauce; menudo, stewed pork with potatoes and bell peppers in a tomato sauce; roast chicken; fried fish; sautéed noodles; and fried and steamed rice.

Manila Cafe, 7020 Commerce St., Springfield; 703-644-5825. MARCELLA'S Chevy Chase

With its jaunty red-and-white-checked tablecloths and homey Italian fare, Marcella's is an appealing oasis in Chevy Chase. Families too busy to cook stop in for pasta on weeknights, and groups of teens gobble up first-rate sausage-and-pepper subs and pizza pies on weekends. The Heavenly, laden with meatballs and pepperoni, is the top pick. Everything--even the mozzarella--is made in-house, and it shows.

The kitchen also turns out a stellar vegetable lasagna with green peppers and a piquant mix of ricotta and spinach. But even meat lasagna is full of surprises: hard-cooked eggs. Pappardelle with a ragu of braised rabbit is a winner, as are linguine with white clam sauce, spinach agnolotti with walnut sauce, and penne pasta with eggplant, garlic, and nubbins of that fresh mozzarella. The house sfogliatelle, crisp shell pastries filled with almond cream, and sugar pie, another homey Italian sweet, are the desserts of choice.

Marcella's, 8540 Connecticut Ave., Chevy Chase; 301-951-1818. Closed Sunday. MARK'S DUCK HOUSE Falls Church

Critic's Choice

Although Northern Virginia boasts many good Chinese restaurants, this is the only one to make the January Washingtonian list of 100 Very Best Restaurants. It doesn't make it because of its decor, although it has been spruced up a bit. It gets there by serving very good Hong Kong-style cooking as well as Cantonese dim sum at lunchtime.

Diners get two menus, one listing appetizers, main-course soups, and noodle and rice dishes, the other listing more ambitious main courses. Though duck plays a prominent role, the offerings go well beyond that. To get the best the restaurant has to offer, choose authentic dishes over the likes of sweet-and-sour pork.

Try the Dungeness crab with shredded scallions and ginger; sliced boneless roast duck with bitter melon; baked marinated pork chops with a white sauce; steamed salty chicken; sautéed watercress with bean-curd paste; sautéed snow-pea shoots with crabmeat sauce; or one of the many casseroles. Combine one or more of these dishes with one of the very good duck dishes, whether braised or Peking style. Whole steamed fish is another winner.

Mark's Duck House, 6184-A Arlington Blvd., Falls Church; 703-532-2125. MATAMOROS RESTAURANT Wheaton

A low-key bar and convivial dining room give this Latin-Tex-Mex eatery an easygoing vibe. On the Tex-Mex side of things, standouts are chunky guacamole, Texas-style all-meat chili, cumin-rubbed pork ribs, and fajitas. As in many Latin restaurants, skirt steak is a major player. Have it with fried eggs, plantains, and refried beans in a platter called El Campesino, meant for one, but really enough for two.

Smaller appetites can go for the nicely turned out pan-fried snapper with olives. And the kids will love pupusas--pockets of crispy dough with fillings of pork and cheese or squash. Spanish-English karaoke draws Latin crowds on weekends, but most of the time Matamoros is a neighborhood scene with couples and families sharing generous plates of food.

Matamoros Restaurant, 2322 University Blvd. W., Wheaton; 301-949-2929. MATUBA Arlington, Bethesda

Matuba gets by with simple decor, a limited menu, good food, and conscientious service. There are few frills. As a result, prices are comfortably within the Cheap Eats budget. Aside from some sushi and sashimi combinations, no dinner main course is over $13.50 and some preparations are under $10, including tempura udon (with thick rice noodles), chicken teriyaki, and katsu donburi (breaded veal over seasoned rice). Diners with serious appetites should visit the Bethesda restaurant for the all-you-can-eat buffets. Patrons sit at a counter, and the food, mostly but not entirely sushi, rolls by on a conveyer belt. The buffet is $10.95 Tuesday through Friday at lunch, $12.95 for Saturday lunch, and $16.95 at dinner Sunday.

Appetizers include à la carte sushi starting a $3.25 a pair, steamed dim sum-like shu mai and fried gyoza, chicken teriyaki, and crisp tempura, also available as a main course. Good main courses are the teriyakis of chicken, beef, and salmon, and the tempuras. More-exotic offerings may appear as daily specials.

Matuba, 2915 Columbia Pike, Arlington, 703-521-2811 (no lunch on weekends); 4918 Cordell Ave., Bethesda, 301-652-7449 (no lunch on Sunday). MEXICALI BLUES Arlington

Don't wander in at dinnertime on a weekend and expect to find an empty table. Although there are lots of restaurants on this part of Wilson Boulevard, this Mexican-Salvadoran storefront restaurant draws more than its share of customers. The sound level is as loud as the color scheme. For a quieter dining experience, go during off hours or get one of the outside tables in fair weather.

The menu is short, the food is first-rate. Good appetizers are quesadillas with a choice of fillings, nachos with a choice of toppings, and yucca con chicharron, tender pieces of fried pork with either boiled or fried yucca. Or start with one of the Salvadoran pupusas or tamales, either as yellow corn wrapped in a corn husk or stuffed with chicken or vegetables in a banana leaf. Many of the dishes are Tex-Mex: tacos, enchiladas, flautas, and tortillas. More ambitious is the shrimp sautéed with onion, tomato, garlic, and cilantro. Saturday and Sunday brunch starts at 11 and features a variety of egg dishes.

Mexicali Blues, 2933 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-812-9352. MINERVA Fairfax, Herndon, Chantilly

Critic's Choice

The best ethnic restaurants attract the people who grew up eating the food. For Indian cooking, the restaurants of choice are the three bearing the Minerva banner. Little money has been spent on decor, so don't expect elegance. But you can expect high-quality food at fair prices.

The menu covers a lot of ground. There are 16 appetizers, mostly fried, like pakoras, samosas, and cutlets, and half a dozen soups. Few Indian restaurants marry a full meat menu with a large and well-prepared selection of southern specialties, but Minerva manages to do so with dosas (large thin and crisp pancakes stuffed with potatoes or other fillings) and uttapams (thick lentil pancakes studded with a choice of vegetables). Tandoor dishes, lamb and chicken curries, vegetarian selections, seafood preparations, biryanis, and breads round out the menu. It's hard to go wrong.

The Minerva buffets are elaborate. They offer chicken curries, tandoori chicken, goat curry, vegetarian curries, southern Indian dishes, and several Indian versions of Chinese dishes. For $8.95 on weekdays and $10.95 on weekends, it's hard to do better.

Minerva, 10364 Lee Hwy, Fairfax, 703-383-9200; 2443-G Centreville Rd., Herndon, 703-793-3223; 14513 Lee Jackson Memorial Hwy., Chantilly, 703-378-7778. MINH'S RESTAURANT Arlington

Not many Vietnamese restaurants work well for a serious business lunch or a special night out. Located on the ground floor of a modern office building, Minh's maintains low prices in an attractive and serene setting. Main courses on the appealing menu rarely go above $10.

Order from the printed menu or choose one of the blackboard specials. For starters the deep-fried spring rolls and steamed summer rolls are good, but consider the more ambitious steamed snails in the shell with ginger and onions or the deep-fried shrimp cake with morsels of yam. Main-course winners include deep-fried whole snapper with a sweet-and-sour sauce, grilled beef short ribs marinated in lemongrass, and red-hot chicken made of cubes of white meat with red chilies, onions, and cilantro. Curries, vegetables, and rice-noodle dishes are appealing.

Minh's Restaurant, 2500 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 703-525-2828. MIXTEC Adams Morgan

This homey Mexican cafe grew out of a grocery store where owner Pepe Montesinos sold soft tacos over the counter. Demand was so great that he added another room and table service. The wonderful soft tacos are still on the menu, but there are other attractions. One is Montesinos's own invention: The delicious torta is a sort of Mexican sub filled with grilled meat, guacamole, chilies, and sauce.

Mixtec also has some of the best tamales in town--the pork-filled ones are particularly good. If you've made the mistake of drinking too many of Mixtec's very good margaritas, come back for lunch the next day for menudo, a tripe stew that's reputed to be a sure-fire hangover cure.

Mixtec, 1792 Columbia Rd., NW; 202-332-1011. NAM'S OF BETHESDA Bethesda

Nam's is a neighborhood favorite for gracious service and top-notch Vietnamese food. Look to the Special Menu for savory starters like grilled prawns with ginger salad, soothing cabbage dumpling soup, and a crispy Vietnamese rice crepe filled with such goodies as shrimp, chicken, pork, and tofu.

You might move on to flounder with a distinctive basil-tamarind sauce, glossy roast honeyed quail, or one of the black-pepper dishes--fish, chicken, or, best of all, shrimp. These come in a casserole in a soy-sauce-based brew accented with pepper and scented with scallions. Curries are also well done, particularly a spicy red version with vegetables and hints of lemongrass and ginger. The short, well-priced wine list offers several drinkable bottles. Cream puffs, a legacy from Vietnam's French colonial days, make for the sweetest of finishes.

Nam's of Bethesda, 4928 Cordell Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-2635. NAM'S OF WHEATON Wheaton

Simple decor and homestyle Vietnamese fare are the hallmarks of this family-run dining room (of no relation to the Bethesda Nam's). The menu is big--you could eat here for weeks without ordering the same dish twice. Highlights include crisp rice-paper rolls filled with seafood, vermicelli, and onions; lemongrass beef with coconut milk; steamed tilapia with ginger and scallion or soybeans; and bo dun, chunks of beef tenderloin marinated in honey and wine, and grilled on skewers.

The best deals on the menu are main-course soups like Saigon beef and seafood noodle. Service can be slow--the owner greets diners and usually waits on tables while his wife cooks in the kitchen. Drinks are limited to beer and basic sodas.

Nam's of Wheaton, 11220 Georgia Ave., Wheaton; 301-933-2525. Open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner. No wheelchair access. NEGRIL Silver Spring, Mitchellville, Gaithersburg, Northwest DC

When you get a hankering for the food of the islands, these humble eat-in/takeout operations, popular with the local Jamaican and West Indian communities, are the places to go. Jerk chicken on the bone puts other versions to shame. Beef patties are piquant half-moons of dough with meat filling. At Negril, the paper-thin crepes known as rotis are filled with chicken or goat curry--they make a great "sandwich" on the run.

Seafood stars include salty fried codfish cakes, mild shrimp curry, and fried snapper escovitch, smothered with sautéed tomatoes and onions. For the more adventurous there's fish tea, a spicy fish broth; pungent curried goat; and tender stewed oxtail. Fruity island drinks like sorrel juice are the beverages of choice--no alcohol is served. Silver Spring and DC are mainly takeout operations, while Gaithersburg and Mitchellville have airy dining rooms.

Negril, Silver Spring, 301-585-3000; Mitchellvile, 301-249-9101; Gaithersburg, 301-926-7220; Northwest DC, 202-332-3737. NEISHA THAI CUISINE Baileys Crossroads, McLean, Northwest DC

The original Neisha Thai in a strip mall just west of Baileys Crossroads has been upstaged by a pair of newer siblings with the same name. The Tysons Corner branch resembles a grotto, while the interior of the DC location borders on the elegant. At all branches, the quality of the food, the service, and the prices are winners. Aside from seafood, no main course reaches $11 at dinner, and most are cheaper.

Good starters are the steamed mussels, crispy spring rolls, grilled eggplant cooked with shrimp, red onion, Thai spices, and a spicy lemon dressing, and the salmon rolls--marinated fresh salmon filet wrapped with jasmine rice, seaweed, and sesame seeds, pan-fried and topped with flying-fish roe. Good main courses are goong-gai prik pow, sautéed chicken and shrimp with roasted-chili paste and coconut milk; Passion Beef with fresh ginger served on a sizzling platter; and deboned and roasted marinated duck served with sautéed watercress. For a few dollars more, consider Neisha's barbecue talay, mixed seafood cooked at a very high temperature with green peppers, onions, pineapple, and tomatoes with the house's barbecue-style sauce and served on a sizzling platter.

Neisha Thai Cuisine, 6037 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, 703-933-3788; 7924 Tysons Corner Center, McLean, 703-883-3588; 4445 Wisconsin Ave., NW, 202-966-7088. NEW FORTUNE Gaithersburg

Dim sum is the meal of choice here, as the flurry of carts bearing dumplings, noodles, and roasted meats will attest. Beef chow foon, soy-braised eggplant, pork dumplings, skinless roast duck, salt-and-pepper shrimp, chicken feet, and crabs with black-bean sauce are all fine choices. Pacing is everything--as is knowing when to say no. How many different kinds of dumplings can you eat in one sitting?

There's a menu beyond dim sum, too: Black-pepper pork chops, soy-sauce squab, Peking duck, and steamed shrimp in lotus leaves are all winners. Delicacies like sea cucumber, fish maw, and abalone--acquired tastes for most Westerners--abound. On a few visits for dinner, banquets for large groups were in full swing, making the room noisy and the experience less pleasant than usual.

New Fortune, 16515 S. Frederick Ave., Gaithersburg; 301-548-8886. NOOSHI Downtown DC

Perhaps to broaden its appeal and make it more like its sister restaurant, Spices in Cleveland Park, Oodles Noodles changed its name two years ago to Nooshi--a combination of noodles and sushi. A sushi bar was added in the front of the restaurant. The sushi is fine--no better than you'd find in any number of downtown sushi bars--but the real reason to go here is the noodles. The noodle dishes hail from all across Asia but manage a remarkable authenticity. Creamy, coconut-flavored Curry Laska, spicy Phuket Noodles, comforting pad Thai, curry-flavored Singapore Noodles, Drunken Noodles with minced chicken and peppers--it's easy to find reasons to return again and again.

Nooshi, 1120 19th St., NW; 202-293-3138. No Sunday lunch. OLAZZO Bethesda

Critic's Choice

Call it Little Italy on Norfolk Avenue. That's what this trattoria with weathered wood tables and black-and-white family photos from the old country feels like. Beautifully fried calamari served in a bowl of a martini glass start things off right. Then it's on to pastas like chicken Cardinale with tomato and cream, lasagna with robust Bolognese sauce, and fettuccine Alfredo with pan-fried chicken Milanese. Even the familiar spaghetti and meatballs is a crackerjack pick: The sturdy marinara, al dente pasta, and flavorful meatballs--all from a family recipe--take it beyond the ordinary.

Monday nights are even more of a bargain--wine by the bottle is half price--and the cocktail crowd gets a nod on Tuesdays, when martinis are $5. A crunchy cannoli or a wedge of tiramisu with a shot of espresso is all you need to cap off the meal.

Olazzo, 7921 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda; 301-654-9496. 101 ROYAL Alexandria

In a Holiday Inn in the heart of Old Town Alexandria is a restaurant that offers all-you-can-eat prime rib of beef for $13.95. The rib roast is high-quality beef, cooked rare, and sliced about a half inch thick; it's returned to the oven for patrons who what theirs cooked more. There are other main courses at dinner, but many are over budget and none approaches the prime rib in quality. An all-you-can-eat pasta selection for $9.95 is not special. A Friday-evening seafood buffet for $14.95 is uneven but offers a number of good dishes, including a raw bar and steamed snow-crab legs. Appetizers include a good sautéed shrimp in a red-pepper cream sauce.

At lunch there's a good all-you-can-eat buffet for $8.95. The centerpiece is the roast of the day, which may be roast beef, London broil, Virginia ham, turkey breast, or baked salmon. Other hot dishes are available, usually thinly sliced, well-done prime rib, a baked fish, and a chicken dish. Cold shrimp in the shell and several salads are also good. Dessert eaters can try the pie and cake of the day. Coffee and tea are included in the buffet price. Sunday Champagne brunch is more elaborate at $19.95.

101 Royal, 480 King St., Alexandria; 703-549-6080. Open Monday through Friday for buffet lunch, daily for dinner, Sunday for brunch. ORIENTAL EAST Silver Spring

Critic's Choice

Best known for extravagant Cantonese dim sum brunches featuring shrimp every which way (salted and spiced, stuffed in eggplant, spilling from dumplings, and in mini egg rolls), this bright dining room has much to recommend it later in the day, too. Regulars go for such plates as salty spicy pork chops, Cantonese-style seafood chow mein, and lobster with ginger and spring onion. This is also a good place to reacquaint yourself with the pleasures of Peking duck or Mongolian lamb.

If the regular menu is not as adventurous as, say, the one at Hollywood East, dim sum is a different story. There you'll find exotica like beef tripe in black-bean sauce and pork and preserved-egg congee, along with more-eater-friendly stars like sweet rice with bits of smoky Chinese sausage, shiny roast-pork buns, and taro dumplings.

Oriental East, 1312 East-West Hwy., Silver Spring; 301-608-0030. PANJSHIR Falls Church, Vienna

There is good news for fans of Panjshir and the food of Afghanistan. The Vienna branch--known as Panjshir II--has reopened after a fire and is as welcoming and comfortable as ever.

While Afghanistan is remote and exotic, the cuisine is quite accessible. Landlocked and surrounded by Iran, Pakistan, and several former Soviet republics, the cooking is intense but not fiery. Start with the unofficial national dish, scallion-filled dumplings topped with a meat sauce and sprinkled with diced vegetables and mint. Mantoo, steamed ravioli-like meat dumplings topped with a meat sauce and yogurt, is another good appetizer. Both are also served as main courses.

A conservative way to continue is with one of the kebabs of chicken, lamb, or ground beef. Beyond those are palows, rice dishes akin to Indian biryanis. Chalows are similar but sweeter, with raisins, sautéed carrots, and prunes. Vegetarian plates are available as main courses or side dishes--try the pumpkin, eggplant, turnips, or spinach, all nicely seasoned with native spices and herbs. Tea drinkers will enjoy the cardamom tea. For a soothing dessert, order the almond pudding with cardamom and pistachios.

Panjshir, 924 W. Broad St., Falls Church, 703-536-4566, closed Sunday, no wheelchair access; Panjshir II, 224 Maple Ave. W., Vienna, 703-281-4183, open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch, Tuesday through Sunday for dinner. PASTA PLUS Laurel

A no-reservations policy and the popularity of the place mean a pileup at the door on weekends. Some get around it by eating in the restaurant's very casual cafe, which has the same menu but not much ambience. Why the crowds? Nicely done classics like mozzarella en carozza, fried calamari, eggplant Parmesan, and lasagna are part of the story. But there's more.

House-made pastas like linguine with broccoli and ricotta-filled agnolotti add regional cooking to the mix. Best of all are the Abruzzi specialties, delicate "crepes" used in place of pasta in a soothing chicken-broth-based soup and in a lasagnalike affair called Timballo alla Teramo with meat, mozzarella, and marinara. Dessert is a tossup between a many-splendored raspberry hazelnut tart and equally fine Italian-style cheesecake.

Pasta Plus, 209 Gorman Ave., Laurel; 301-498-7878. Closed Monday. PHO 75 Arlington, Falls Church, Herndon, Langley Park, Rockville

When the first Pho 75 opened 30 years ago, this Vietnamese specialty was all but unknown in this area. Since then, dozens of competitors have opened, but none is better than Pho 75--it remains the standard for the meal-size soup that is its only offering.

Diners sit at Spartan tables, sometimes with strangers. Pho consists of steaming beef broth perfumed with star anise and loaded with thin rice noodles, sliced onions, scallions, and the diner's choice of thinly sliced meats--brisket, flank steak, soft tendon, tripe, and meatballs. Patrons order by number from the long list of combinations on the menu. Served separately and added by the diner are bean sprouts, basil or Asian mint, lime, and green chilies. The patron then squirts in hot chili sauce and hoisin sauce to taste and mixes. Beverages of choice are potent drip coffee, iced coffee, and soft drinks like salty lemonade or a drink made from preserved plums.

Pho 75, Arlington, 703-525-7355; Falls Church, 703-204-1490; Herndon, 703-471-4145; Langley Park, 301-434-7844; Rockville, 301-309-8873. Open daily from 9 to 8. PIZZERIA PARADISO Dupont Circle, Georgetown

Critic's Choice

How to describe Pizzeria Paradiso's pizza? A delicious crust that tastes of real bread, cooked in a wood-burning oven to just this side of charring; top-quality sauces and toppings, sparely applied; a rock-solid consistency. And that doesn't begin to do the trick.

Despite tough competition from 2 Amys, Pizzeria Paradiso remains the best pizza in the area. You can construct your own pizza from the list of toppings on the menu, but you're unlikely to do better than owner Ruth Gresser's set offerings--the spicy Atomica with salami and red-pepper flakes, the unusual and delicious Genovese with potatoes and pesto, or the simple Margherita, which needs nothing other than tomato, basil, and mozzarella.

If you can pass up the pizza, there's a small list of panini, Italian sandwiches served on house-made rolls. The one filled with marinated roast pork is a treat, and the tuna salad with anchovies and capers is very good, too.

Pizzeria Paradiso, 2029 P St., NW, 202-223-1245; 3282 M St., NW, 202-337-1245. No wheelchair access at P Street. PO-SIAM Alexandria

This family-operated restaurant does not distinguish itself by the length of its menu or the exotic nature of its entries. Rather, it's the fine preparation of traditional dishes and assured service that draws customers to the pretty dining room. Prices are right, too. Aside from whole fish and an assortment of stir-fried seafood, no dish reaches $10.

The appetizers include chicken satay, deep-fried or steamed spring rolls, fried fish patties with sweet-and-sour sauce, fried bean curd, and minced pork and shrimp wrapped in bean-curd skin and deep-fried. Nothing unusual, but everything well prepared. Spicy room-temperature salads are good to share as appetizers or will serve as a light main course. Spicy grilled beef and crispy catfish are happy choices. A trio of fine main courses includes the pra ram long-song, sliced steamed chicken breast on steamed broccoli with spicy peanut sauce; pad ma keur, stir-fried sliced Thai eggplant with black-bean sauce, basil leaves, sliced chili, and a choice of meats; and roasted-duck curry with honey, pineapple, tomato, basil, and coconut milk. The traditional pad Thai is very good.

Po-Siam, 3807 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-548-3925. RABIENG Falls Church

This Thai restaurant is the less elegant sibling of Duangrat's. With the same owner and a stone's throw away, Rabieng has bamboo placemats instead of Duangrat's white tablecloths. The food and prices are consistent with the decor. Rabieng offers the regional cooking of Thailand's provinces. Most of the main courses are under $9, including beef and pork, and many seafood dishes, including shrimp, are under $11.

Among the excellent appetizers are Tidbit, a crispy rice cake with a coconut pork dip; a salad of fried marinated beef strips with Thai hot sauce; and mee grob, thin rice noodles flavored with sweet-and-sour tamarind syrup and garnished with shrimp. One of the moderately spicy salads based on grilled beef, chopped chicken, or grilled shrimp is another good way to start. So is a salad of green papaya tossed with shrimp and spiced chili lime juice. Pleasing main courses are spicy southern Satoh shrimp sautéed with chili paste, peas, and beans; Northeastern curry chicken in green-curry sauce with Japanese eggplant, bamboo shoots, green beans, mushrooms, and basil; Esan grilled chicken or quail marinated in Thai herbs and served with a pair of sauces and sticky rice; and garlic shrimp. There is also a Thai dim sum brunch on weekends.

Rabieng, 5892 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church; 703-671-4222. ROCKLANDS BARBEQUE AND GRILLING COMPANY Glover Park, Arlington, Alexandria

John Snedden started Rocklands in a tiny Glover Park storefront in 1990. Last year he opened his third location; he now serves more than 150,000 pounds of pork a year. The original location has a few seats, the Alexandria branch a few more, but most DC and Alexandria customers prefer takeout. In Arlington, Rocklands shares a space with Car Pool, an upscale pool hall. Beer is served, so after 4 PM customers must be 21 to enter.

There's chicken, beef, even fish on the menu, but the main attraction is the pork ribs. Seasoned then slowly smoked over hickory and red oak, they are moist, tender, and flavorful. The best of the sides are macaroni-and-cheese and corn pudding. Looking for an impressive centerpiece for a party? Have Rocklands cook a whole suckling pig. The price is $4.99 a pound, and the pigs are available in weights up to 120 pounds.

Rocklands Barbecue and Grilling Company, 2418 Wisconsin Ave., NW, 202-333-2558; 4000 N. Fairfax Dr., Arlington, 703-528-9663; 25 S. Quaker La., Alexandria, 703-778-9663. SALA THAI Dupont Circle, Cleveland Park, U Street, Arlington, Bethesda

The atmosphere at the original Sala Thai in Dupont Circle is more nightclub than restaurant. You descend into a windowless basement, the dark relieved by a neon glow. But in a city where Thai restaurants are springing up all over, the kitchens of Sala Thai's various locations continue to turn out some of the best Thai cooking.

Among the appetizers, Yum Talay is a delight, a mixture of fresh seafood dressed with hot chilies and lemon juice. Julienne green papaya is crisp and cool, in nice contrast to its spicy lime-juice dressing. Sala Thai's version of la-ab gai, minced chicken with spices and lemon juice, is exemplary. Among the main courses, lovers of hot food will want to try Ka Prow, your choice of beef, pork, or chicken with basil, hot chilies, and garlic. Curries are well done, particularly the red curries of beef or duck. For dessert, there's no beating mango and sticky rice.

Sala Thai, Dupont Circle, 202-872-1144; Cleveland Park, 202-237-2777; U Street, 202-462-1333; Arlington, 703-465-2900; Bethesda, 301-654-4676. SATAY SARINAH Alexandria

The world's fourth most-populated country, Indonesia has more people than Vietnam and Thailand combined, yet in the United States its cuisine is almost a footnote. It deserves a look, and you can't do better than at Satay Sarinah, which has been in business 20 years, first in Georgetown and now in Alexandria, and where nothing but whole fish costs as much as $10.

There is little exotic about the cooking. Good starters are the satays of beef, lamb, chicken, shrimp, or tofu. Other choices are potato croquettes stuffed with beef, fried corn cakes, and marinated ground beef wrapped in a thin dough and crisply fried. Winning main courses are chicken marinated in a coconut-milk-based sauce and then broiled, chicken first marinated then fried, and chicken curry served with glass noodles and vegetables. The whole fish and the fried shrimp in butter sauce are very good. Both fried noodles and fried rice are integral to the country's cooking. Fried bananas, with or without ice cream, make a good dessert.

Satay Sarinah, 512-A S. Van Dorn St., Alexandria; 703-370-4313. SETTE OSTERIA Dupont Circle

This elegant osteria near Dupont Circle combines the style-consciousness of modern Italy with the solid comfort of traditional Neapolitan cooking. Owner Franco Nuschese seems to have a talent for attracting beautiful people--the more affluent set is at Cafe Milano in Georgetown, and the younger, hipper crowd is at Sette. A look around the tables might lead you to believe you've stepped into Emporio Armani.

The center of this menu is pizza. The classics, Margherita and Quattro Formaggi, are very good, but some more modern improvisations are worthwhile, too, particularly the one that combines broccoli rabe, pork sausage, and chilies from Calabria.

Splitting a pizza is one way to start a meal here. Or you can order from the appealing list of antipasti: sautéed mussels and clams, fried calamari, or a selection of Italian cured meats served with bread and olives. Pastas, from recipes by chef Domenico Cornacchia of Cafe Milano, are well done. Good main-course picks include roasted veal, a grilled rib-eye steak, and the daily fish selection. The wine list has a number of wines by the glass and some well-priced bottles from lesser-known regions of Italy.

Sette Osteria, 1666 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-483-3070. Open for lunch and dinner daily--until 2 AM weekdays, 3 AM Friday and Saturday, midnight on Sunday. SEVEN SEAS Rockville

Critic's Choice

With its red walls and double-sided fish tanks, Seven Seas is one of the most eye-catching Chinese restaurants around. The tanks and the name tell the story: Seafood is king. Some items, like sweet Dungeness crab with vinegar and salt, and lobster with ginger and scallions, may mean penny-pinching on sides to stay within the Cheap Eats budget, but they're worth it. Fish right out of the tank--depending on the season it might be tilapia, rockfish, black bass, or Atlantic cod--are a bit easier on the wallet. Order them simply steamed with braised garlic or in a winning ginger-and-scallion combo. You don't need much to enhance these plates, maybe snow-pea leaves or Chinese broccoli and a noodle dish.

The kitchen also does a nice job with Manila clams with shredded ginger, and scallops on the shell with black-bean sauce. For the seafood-shy, black-pepper beef short ribs, spicy tofu with chili oil, shredded pork with hot sauce, and roast duck Canton-style are all deftly done. A new health-conscious menu offers such dishes as chicken with Chinese herb soup, free-range poultry, and line-caught fish.

Seven Seas Restaurant, 1776 E. Jefferson St., Rockville; 301-770-5020. SHAMSHIRY Vienna

With hanging plants and exquisite fabrics on the walls, this restaurant seeks to reproduce the atmosphere and cooking of the cuisine of Persia, now Iran. The food leans toward kebabs of meat and fowl, but there are plenty of vegetarian offerings. Prices are moderate--most main courses are under $11. Absent from the menu is alcohol, so customers order soft drinks or the traditional yogurt-based doogh.

Two of the six appetizers are yogurt-based--mast-o khiar, yogurt with cucumbers and dill, and mast-o musir, yogurt with chopped garlic. More challenging is torche bademjan, a pickled relish of eggplant, cilantro, mint, black caraway, and garlic. Main courses are mostly kebabs--chicken, Cornish hen, beef, salmon, or ground beef--which come with mounds of rice. Aficionados make a hole in the rice and add a raw egg (75 cents extra) and butter, mix well, then dust the mound and meat with sumac, a mixture of herbs and spices. The menu lists a number of vegetarian rice dishes for $4.98, including pieces of crusty rice from the bottom of the pot enlivened with sour cherries, red currants, fava beans, or orange peel with pistachios and almonds. Consider sharing one of these to go with the kebabs. Saffron or cinnamon ice cream are good endings.

Shamshiry, 8607 Westwood Center Dr., Vienna; 703-448-8883. SORRISO Cleveland Park

Critic's Choice

Pietro Polles retired after 26 years at the World Bank to pursue his passion of cooking. He moved to his vineyard in Italy, where he makes his own Merlot, and attended cooking school. He modeled his restaurant, Sorriso, near the Uptown Theater, on family-run places in the Friuli and Veneto regions. When son Stefano finished college, he went to Italy for training and took over the restaurant's pizza-making operation. The result is a friendly--the women of the family run the front of the house--first-rate pizzeria with a menu of carefully prepared antipasti, pastas, and main courses.

The pizza Margherita, topped with tomato and mozzarella, has all the elements of a well-made pizza--a flavorful, well-cooked crust, sparely applied toppings, and first-rate ingredients. It makes a good first course for two. Beyond pizza, you'll find bruschetta topped with tomato, garlic, and basil or carpaccio of tuna to start; well-cooked pastas, including rigatoni with a splendid Bolognese sauce; and meat courses, such as a tender osso buco in red-wine sauce, served with polenta. The wine list has good bottles in the $20 range, service is friendly and prompt, and the place is smoke-free.

Sorriso, 3518 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-537-4800. Open daily for dinner, Tuesday through Saturday for lunch. SOUTHSIDE 815 Alexandria

Many patrons with an eye on dinner never get past the bar here. It's one of the liveliest around, with lots of people, plenty of television sets, and 18 draft beers. The food of the American South, particularly Louisiana, is the theme, and the kitchen pulls it off with gusto. To get you in the mood, the dining room has the aura of a Bourbon Street bordello.

A bread basket of plain and sweet-potato biscuits and cornbread greets diners. Start a meal with fried green tomatoes with rémoulade sauce, minced crab-and-corn fritters rolled in a batter, or deep-fried chicken strips with rémoulade sauce. Good main courses are blackened catfish, chicken-fried steak, Charleston chicken with shrimp, kielbasa, corn, and shallots sautéed in sherry butter, and Low Country Shortcake--roast chicken, oysters, and mashed potatoes layered with cornbread and coated with gravy.

Some of the clientele gravitates to the Sunday brunch, where the likes of pecan pancakes, Down Under French toast, and Southern Benedict--poached eggs over cornbread flooded with tasso-ham-studded hollandaise--inaugurate the day of rest.

Southside 815, 815 S. Washington St., Alexandria; 703-836-6222. SPICES Cleveland Park

Whether you're seated at the sushi bar or at a table, you're likely to be impressed by the efficiency and quality of Jessie Yan's popular Cleveland Park restaurant. Many regulars order a few pieces of sushi as a first course, but even if you make a meal of sushi, you can come in under the Cheap Eats budget by ordering one of the assortments, such as sushi and two rolls, for $15.

Appetizers and main courses include many dishes served at Nooshi downtown--spicy ginger chicken, Tangerine Peel Beef, and Suicide Curry, with a level of heat that justifies its name. Fried rice and noodles, from pad Thai to Japanese udon, are other possibilities. This is a pan-Asian kitchen that does justice to each of the national cuisines.

Spices, 3333-A Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-686-3833. No Sunday lunch. SUPORN'S Wheaton

The decor is unassuming compared with other Thai eateries, but the welcome is warm and the cooking true at this family-run stalwart. The big menu might momentarily flummox some diners, but there are so many fine dishes it's hard to go wrong. Pad Thai is one of the best versions in the area. Salads go beyond the familiar Thai combos to a noteworthy creation with smoky grilled mussels and another with Chinese sausage, cucumbers, and onion in a tart limey brew.

Steamed whole flounder shines with its sauce of sweet plum and ginger root, and whole fried fish with chili sauce is flaky and flavorful. Tender Asian eggplant perfumed with Thai basil goes well with the fish dishes. And meat lovers will find spicy charcoal beef with toasted rice a welcome alternative to T-bone.

Suporn's, 2302 Price Ave., Wheaton; 301-946-7613. Closed Monday. TAKO GRILL Bethesda

The red-and-teal dining room can get frenetic when the dinner masses descend, and service is not always what it should be, but Tako offers an array of choice morsels for the budget-minded. Sushi and sashimi lovers have all the usual rolls and platters to choose from, plus smaller, less pricey options like tuna nuta, four pieces of tuna artfully arranged with thin-sliced cucumber and seaweed. Tempura options go beyond the run of the mill to oysters and tofu--the semi-virtuous have tempura on cold green-tea noodles as an option.

Ginger pork is the best of the stir-fries, and classic deep-fried pork tonkatsu is a winner, too. Tako also has a roster of grilled morsels such as asparagus, scallops, and ginkgo nuts called robatayaki. Green beans in sesame sauce make for a nice change from Japanese seaweed and spinach salads. It's easy to get carried away with the extensive and beautifully put-together boutique-sake list, but you'll strain the Cheap Eats budget if you sip too avidly.

Tako Grill, 7756 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-7030. TANDOORI NIGHTS Gaithersburg

Artful plates and exotic flavors add to the feel of what has to be one of the more glamorous Indian restaurants around. Fresh fruit daiquiris--we like the mango--start things off with a flourish. You'll need them to cool things down--this place is not spice-shy. Hariyali kebab, a fiery mint-laced chicken drumstick, awakens the palate, as does the addictive mint chutney, one of several condiments that arrive with the peppery cracker bread known as pappadam. Milder but no less delicious is garlic shrimp, gently sautéed with wine and honey. Aloo chat papri is a starter found at many Indian restaurants, but nowhere is this heap of chickpeas, flour crisps, chutney, and yogurt presented in such sculptural form.

Familiar dishes like tandoori lamb chops, chicken kashmiri in a creamy almond-and-dried-fruit sauce, and fiery Goan-fish curry, are all beautifully done. The whole fish cooked tandoori-style in the clay oven, served with okra and garlic naan, makes a smashing meal for two that's still in Cheap Eats territory. Rose-flavored ice cream and Malai kulfi, thick frozen milk flavored with pistachio or mango, keep the romance going through dessert.

Tandoori Nights, 106 Market Sq., Gaithersburg; 301-947-4007. TASTE OF SAIGON Rockville, McLean

A parking lot might not seem the ideal setting for an outdoor patio, but Rockville's Taste of Saigon has created a tree- and plant-fringed oasis complete with a mini waterfall amid the asphalt. On warm days it's a pleasant place to nibble on Nha-Trang, a cool yet spicy salad of shredded green papaya with lobster. The interior is attractive, too, in shades of green with museum-quality artifacts and artwork.

The reason to come here, though, is the food. Shrimp paste on crab claws instead of the usual sugarcane is the sort of creativity one can expect from the kitchen. Black-pepper shrimp, battered, fried, and doused in a buttery black-pepper sauce, is a signature dish. Other worthy plates are crispy egg noodles with vegetables, lime-marinated New York strip with a fried egg, and, if the budget permits, whole steamed fish with black-bean sauce. The McLean location has similar decor and a sidewalk cafe.

Taste of Saigon, 410 Hungerford Dr., Rockville, 301-424-7222; 8201 Greensboro Dr., McLean, 703-790-0700. TIFFIN Takoma Park

Sister restaurant to the all-vegetarian Udupi Palace a couple of doors away, Tiffin shares a few dishes with its sibling, including the searing yet delicious bharwaan baigan curry made with Asian eggplants. (Neither restaurant stints on spice). Kadai chicken, goat curry, and dosas filled with potato and onion are among the five-alarm plates worth ordering.

The skinless tandoori chicken and a toss of puffed rice, potatoes, yogurt, and sweet-sour tamarind are milder standouts. And of course there are the breads, which are best ordered hot from the oven; the wedges on the buffet are okay, but tandoori breads are meant to be eaten piping hot. Beer, lassis, and a house-made lemon soda are available to quench fires. So is kulfi, India's rich-as-the-Raj answer to ice cream.

Tiffin, 1341 University Blvd. E., Takoma Park; 301-434-9200. TONO SUSHI Woodley Park

The best time to eat bargain sushi at this very good Woodley Park sushi bar is at happy hour from 5 to 7 PM, when sushi is $1 apiece. But even during regular hours, a sushi meal won't break the bank. Individual pieces of sushi are priced from $1.50 for the sweet omelet or tofu to $2.95 for uni, or sea-urchin roe. Rolls--the specials vary daily--are $2.50 to $10.50. A sushi dinner--six pieces and a roll or just eight pieces--is a bargain at $14.95; the Jo-Sushi dinner, ten pieces and a roll, is $18.95. Both come with a bowl of miso soup.

There's lots more than sushi to choose from. The pan-Asian part of the menu, mostly Chinese and Thai dishes, is not very appealing. Stick to the Japanese dishes--tempura, teriyaki, or beef negimaki--beef wrapped around scallions with teriyaki sauce.

Tono Sushi, 2605 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-332-7300. No wheelchair access. TONY CHENG'S SEAFOOD RESTAURANT Chinatown

If you're looking for Tony Cheng's Seafood Restaurant, go up the stairs to the second floor. The ground floor is Tony Cheng's Mongolian Barbecue, where despite the appeal of constructing your own dish and having it cooked for you on the huge circular grills, everything tastes pretty much the same. The Seafood Restaurant has perhaps the most accomplished kitchen in Chinatown. The menu is mostly Cantonese, but there are also some spicier Hunan and Szechuan dishes on the menu.

Take a cue from the fish tanks at the entrance and order such dishes as Dungeness crab in season, shrimp with asparagus in black-bean sauce, whole fish, fresh seafood on crispy noodle, and fish filets with Chinese vegetables. Tony Cheng's serves dim sum every day. On weekdays, it's ordered from a menu. Better to time your visit for a weekend and eat a wider selection from rolling carts.

Tony Cheng's Seafood Restaurant, 619 H St., NW; 202-371-8669. 2 AMYS Cleveland Park

There are two classes of pizza at Peter Pastan and Tim Giamettie's always-packed pizza parlor. Listed as D.O.C. pizzas--meaning they are certified as authentic Neapolitan pizzas by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana--are the Marinara, the Margherita, and the Margherita Extra. Ingredients for the dough and toppings as well as the method of cooking must meet strict standards, and the result is wonderful pizza. Not every pizza, even in Naples, is authentic, so don't neglect the other pies, simply labeled Pizze, which include a wonderful Etna with eggplant confit, a Vongole with cockles in the shell, and Abruzzese, with little meatballs.

There's a small menu beyond pizza--a few Little Things like salt-cod croquettes and a selection of salads. More recently there's been a selection of specials that change every day, mostly panini.

Be prepared to wait for a table, and not very comfortably. There are a few seats at the bar in back, but waiting customers mostly mill around near the front door.

2 Amys, 3715 Macomb St., NW; 202-885-5700. Open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch, daily for dinner. UDUPI PALACE Takoma Park

The food at this sprawling vegetarian Indian restaurant is varied enough that you are likely to forget about chicken, lamb, and seafood. A lavish buffet, popular with extended Indian families on weekends, is a good introduction to the curries and stews this cuisine revolves around. If you want to order off the menu, focus on such dishes as malabar adai, a pancake studded with vegetables; curd rice with yogurt, mustard seeds, and cilantro; and channa batura, puffy bread served with chickpea curry for dipping.

For diners who can take the heat, battered-and-fried chili pakoras and eggplant curry deliver fire. Milder options include dosas, oversize pancakes filled with vegetables, and a gentle coconut chutney. Mango lassis cool things down and double as dessert. But you may want to save a bit of room for the colorful Indian sweets in a glass case by the door.

Udupi Palace, 1329 University Blvd., Takoma Park; 301-434-1531. URBAN BAR-B-QUE Rockville

Critic's Choice

Barbecue is fun food. The chef/owners of Urban Bar-B-Que take this notion and run with it. Hence a dish called Urban Legend, an archaeological mound layered with smoked brisket and sausage, barbecue beans, and Fritos. But they're dead serious about barbecue. Pulled pork and smoky pork ribs get blue ribbons. Have them with the mustardy "yella" sauce or vinegary "Carolina sop." Sides like slaw, brown-sugar beans, and picnic potato salad are nicely done--better than the collards and mac-and-cheese.

Beyond barbecue, there's a juicy burger and a winner of a BLT made with thick-cut bacon on hefty slices of Texas toast. Though seating has been limited to ten stools at a central table and window counter, Urban plans to expand to about 30 seats and add beer and wine to its drinks menu of soda and peach tea in early summer. Fun continues with dessert: There's a draft-root-beer float, killer apple crisp, and tangy Key-lime pie that'll have you humming Jimmy Buffett.

Urban Bar-B-Que, 2007 Chapman Ave., Rockville; 240-290-4827. VINH KEE Falls Church

The name of this restaurant may confuse people by suggesting Vietnamese rather than the Hong Kong-style cuisine it serves. The explanation is that the restaurant has a Vietnamese clientele that appreciates authentic Chinese cooking. The entries on the elaborate menu are written in Chinese, Vietnamese, and English. The restaurant doubled its size just over a year ago, and attendance has kept pace. Prices are reasonable and portions are large.

Diners seeking a simple meal can order some of the Chinese-barbecue-style dishes, including roast duck, roast pig, and soy-sauce chicken along with large bowls of noodle soup with toppings like shrimp dumplings and beef brisket.

To take in the full measure of the restaurant, consider fresh seafood--lobster, Dungeness crab, oysters, or whole fish. Casseroles are special and range from chicken or vegetable to eggplant with salted fish and minced chicken. Winners on recent visits included beef short ribs in black-pepper sauce, spicy Chinese watercress Malaysian style, shrimp in garlic sauce, clams with black-bean sauce, and Hong Kong-style pan-fried thin egg noodles topped with seafood and meat. A Chinese friend suggested a dish not on the menu--quay fee chicken, which is steamed and served with a dipping sauce of pepper, garlic, ginger, and salt--that was also a winner.

For a smaller and more modest version of Vinh Kee, visit Cho Cu Saigon inside the Eden Center at Seven Corners.

Vinh Kee, 3103-D Graham Rd., Falls Church; 703-645-0118.

Small Plates Big Savings

Tapas, Mezze, and More

There's a world of very good cheap eating beyond the 100 Best Bargain Restaurants if you're not set on having a full meal. Many restaurants offer small plates, sometimes a selection of Spanish tapas, Middle Eastern mezze, or Mexican antojitos, sometimes smaller portions of dishes from the main menu. These can make a satisfying light meal. Here are suggestions for inexpensive dining at restaurants you won't find in Cheap Eats, often because the price of a full meal puts them over our $50-a-couple limit.

In DC, you have lots of possibilities, particularly at the restaurants run by José Andrés and partners. At Jaleo (480 Seventh St., NW; 202-628-7949), which has locations in Bethesda (7271 Woodmont Ave.; 301-913-0003) and Crystal City (2250-A Crystal Dr.; 703-413-8181), you'll find a large selection of hot and cold tapas. Zaytinya (701 Ninth St., NW; 202-638-0800) has a similar format but serves mezze, the selection of appetizers that traditionally precedes a Middle Eastern meal. Indian restaurants have begun to cash in on the small-plates trend. Indique in DC's Cleveland Park (3512 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-244-6600) offers a menu of small plates, as does Heritage India's new "brasserie" near Dupont Circle (1337 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-333-3120), which features small plates based on the street-hawker fare of India. The expensive Palena (3529 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-537-9250) has a cafe menu, available in the front room, where most items, including what may be the best cheeseburger in town, are $10.

In Maryland, you'll find that many restaurants have a less-expensive bar menu. Black's Bar & Kitchen in Bethesda (7750 Woodmont Ave.; 301-652-6278) has inexpensive noshes, raw-bar items, and small plates. The same goes for Jackie's in Silver Spring (8081 Georgia Ave.; 301-565-9700), where small plates, including miniburgers, and the blue-plate special will keep costs down. Red Dog Cafe in Silver Spring (8301-A Grubb Rd.; 301-588-6300) has wood-oven pizzas, main-course salads, a dreamy macaroni and cheese, and offbeat sandwiches.

The pub at the Irish Inn at Glen Echo (6119 Tulane Ave.; 301-229-6600) has a low-cost menu with bangers and mash (Irish-style sausages with mashed potatoes and peas), great Guinness-battered codfish with fries, and an Irish cheeseburger with Dublin cheddar.

In Virginia, La Tasca in Clarendon (2900 Wilson Blvd., 703-812-9120; and in DC, 722 Seventh St., NW, 202-347-9190) offers an ambitious tapas menu. Also in Clarendon is Eleventh Street (1041 N. Highland St.; 703-351-1311), a bar and lounge that serves western Mediterranean and southern French small plates. Next door to the Crystal City Jaleo is Oyamel (2250 Crystal Dr.; 703-413-2288), from the same owners. Much of the menu consists of Mexican small plates.

Middle Eastern restaurants always have a wide selection of mezze; try the always-friendly Layalina at 5216 Wilson Blvd. in Arlington (703-525-1170). The Amuse Yourself menu at Tallula (2761 Washington Blvd., Arlington; 703-778-5051), located in the longtime home of Whitey's, offers nearly a dozen items to order by the piece, allowing you to create a cocktail-party-style platter for your table.

Changes To The Top 100

District Of Columbia

Incoming

Sorriso

Outgoing

Annie's Paramount Steakhouse

Krupin's

Maryland

Incoming

Café Spice

Doughboys

Guajiro

Urban Bar-B-Que

Outgoing

China Star

Kuzine

Napa Thai

Rio Grande Café

Virginia

Incoming

101 Royal

A la Lucia

Outgoing

Akasaka

Taqueria el Poblano

WASHINGTONIAN 100 Bargain Restaurants Where You'll Find Lots of Flavor & Fun

Restaurant/Address/Phone •DENOTES CRITIC'S CHOICE Location Cuisine
A&J Restaurant Rockville, 301-251-7878; Annandale, 703-813-8181 Rockville, Annandale Chinese
Aarathi 409 Maple Ave. E., Vienna; 703-938-0100 Vienna Indian
Aditi 3299 M St., NW; 202-625-6825 Georgetown Indian
•A la Lucia 315 Madison St., Alexandria; 703-836-5123 Alexandria Italian
Amma Indian Vegetarian Kitchen 3291 M St., NW; 202-625-6625 Georgetown Indian
Benjarong 885 Rockville Pike, Rockville; 301-424-5533 Rockville Thai
•Bob's Noodle 305 N. Washington St., Rockville; 301-315-6668 Rockville Chinese
•Bombay Bistro Fairfax, 703-359-5810; Rockville, 301-762-8798 Fairfax, Rockville Indian
Bombay Curry Company 3110 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-836-6363 Alexandria Indian
Bombay Tandoor 8643 Westwood Center Dr., Vienna; 703-734-2202 Vienna Indian
Bread Line 1751 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-822-8900 Downtown DC American
Bubba's Bar-B-Q 7810-F Lee Hwy., Falls Church; 703-560-8570 Falls Church Barbecue
Burma Restaurant 740 Sixth St., NW; 202-638-1280 Chinatown Burmese
•Cactus Cantina 3300 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-686-7222 Cleveland Park Tex-Mex
Cafe Divan 1834 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-338-1747 Georgetown Turkish
•Cafe Monti 3250 Duke St., Alexandria; 703-370-3632 Alexandria Austrian-Italian
•Café Olé 4000 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-244-1330 Tenleytown Mediterranean
Café Parisien Express 4520 Lee Hwy., Arlington; 703-525-3332 Arlington Fast French
Café Spice 9811 Washingtonian Blvd., Gaithersburg; 301-330-6611 Gaithersburg Indian
Cafe Tirolo 4001 N. Fairfax Dr., Arlington; 703-528-7809 Ballston Austrian-Italian
Capital Q 707 H St., NW; 202-347-8396 Chinatown Barbecue
China Garden 1100 Wilson Blvd., Rosslyn; 703-525-5317 Rosslyn Chinese
China Star 9600-G Main St., Fairfax; 703-323-8822 Fairfax Chinese
•Chinatown Express 746 Sixth St., NW; 202-638-0424/0425 Chinatown Chinese
Coppi's Organic 1414 U St., NW; 202-319-7773 U Street Italian
Crystal Thai 4819 N. First St., Arlington; 703-522-1311 Arlington Thai
Cuban Corner 825 Hungerford Dr., Rockville; 301-279-0310 Rockville Cuban
Doughboys 251 W. Market St., Gaithersburg; 301-330-3212 Gaithersburg Pizza
Dragon Chinese 227 Muddy Branch Rd., Gaithersburg; 301-330-6222 Gaithersburg Chinese
•Dragon Star 6793 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church; 703-533-8340 Falls Church Chinese
Duangrat's 5878 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church; 703-820-5775 Falls Church Thai
Eat First 609 H St., NW; 202-289-1703 Chinatown Chinese
El Gavilan 8805 Flower Ave., Silver Spring; 301-587-4197 Silver Spring Salvadoran
El Patio 12303 Twinbrook Pkwy., Rockville; 301-231-9225 Rockville Argentinean
El Pollo Rico Arlington, 703-522-3220; Wheaton, 301-942-4419 Arlington, Wheaton Chicken
El Tapatio 4309 Kenilworth Ave., Bladensburg; 301-403-8882 Bladensburg Mexican
Faryab Afghan 4917 Cordell Ave., Bethesda; 301-951-3484 Bethesda Afghan
Five Guys 20 area locations Md., Va., DC Burgers
Flavors Soul Food 3420 Carlyn Hill Dr., Falls Church; 703-379-4411 Falls Church Southern
•Four Sisters (Huong Que) 6769 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church; 703-538-6717 Falls Church Vietnamese
Full Kee 509 H St., NW; 202-371-2233 Chinatown Chinese
Good Fortune 2646 University Blvd. W., Wheaton; 301-929-8818 Wheaton Chinese
Guajillo 1727 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-807-0840 Arlington Mexican
Guajiro 8650 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring; 301-565-4985 Silver Spring Cuban
Half Moon Bar-B-Que 8235 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring; 301-585-1290 Silver Spring Barbecue
Hollywood East Café Wheaton, 301-942-8282; on the Boulevard, 240-290-9988 Wheaton Chinese
Hunan Palace 9011 Gaither Rd., Gaithersburg; 301-977-8600 Gaithersburg Chinese
Jasmine Garden 8106 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church; 703-208-9989 Falls Church Chinese
La Piazza 535 E. Braddock Rd., Alexandria; 703-519-7711 Alexandria Italian
Lauriol Plaza 1835 18th St., NW; 202-387-0035 Dupont Circle Tex-Mex
Lebanese Taverna Café four area locations Maryland Lebanese
Lei Garden 629 H St., NW; 202-216-9696 Chinatown Chinese
Lucky Three 5900 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church; 703-998-8888 Falls Church Chinese
•Malaysia Kopitiam 1827 M St., NW; 202-833-6232 Downtown DC Malaysian
Mama Ayesha's 1967 Calvert St., NW; 202-232-5431 Adams Morgan Lebanese
Mandalay 930-932 Bonifant St., Silver Spring; 301-585-0500 Silver Spring Burmese
Manila Cafe 7020 Commerce St., Springfield; 703-644-5825 Springfield Philippine
Marcella's 8540 Connecticut Ave., Chevy Chase; 301-951-1818 Chevy Chase Italian
•Mark's Duck House 6184-A Arlington Blvd., Falls Church; 703-532-2125 Falls Church Chinese
Matamoros Restaurant 2322 University Blvd. W., Wheaton; 301-949-2929 Wheaton Tex-Mex
Matuba Arlington, 703-521-2811; Bethesda, 301-652-7449 Arlington, Bethesda Japanese
Mexicali Blues 2933 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-812-9352 Clarendon Mexican-Salvadoran
•Minerva three area locations Fairfax, Herndon, Chantilly Indian
Minh's Restaurant 2500 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-525-2828 Arlington Vietnamese
Mixtec 1792 Columbia Rd., NW; 202-332-1011 Adams Morgan Mexican
Nam's of Bethesda 4928 Cordell Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-2635 Bethesda Vietnamese
Nam's of Wheaton 11220 Georgia Ave., Wheaton; 301-933-2525 Wheaton Vietnamese
Negril four area locations Maryland, DC Jamaican
Neisha Thai three area locations N.Va., DC Thai
New Fortune 16515 S. Frederick Ave., Gaithersburg; 301-548-8886 Gaithersburg Chinese
Nooshi 1120 19th St., NW; 202-293-3138 Downtown DC Asian
•Olazzo 7921 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda; 301-654-9496 Bethesda Italian
101 Royal 480 King St., Alexandria; 703-549-6080 Alexandria American
•Oriental East 1312 East-West Hwy., Silver Spring; 301-608-0030 Silver Spring Chinese
Panjshir Falls Church, 703-536-4566; Vienna, 703-281-4183 Falls Church, Vienna Afghan
Pasta Plus 209 Gorman Ave., Laurel; 301-498-7878 Laurel Italian
Pho 75 five area locations Maryland, N.Va. Vietnamese
•Pizzeria Paradiso Dupont, 202-223-1245; Georgetown, 202-337-1245 Dupont Circle, Georgetown Pizza
Po-Siam 3807 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-548-3925 Alexandria Thai
Rabieng 5892 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church; 703-671-4222 Baileys Crossroads Thai
Rocklands Barbeque and Grilling Co. three area locations Glover Park, N.Va. Barbecue
Sala Thai five area locations DC, Arlington, Bethesda Thai
Satay Sarinah 512-A S. Van Dorn St., Alexandria; 703-370-4313 Alexandria Indonesian
Sette Osteria 1666 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-483-3070 Dupont Circle Italian
•Seven Seas Restaurant 1776 E. Jefferson St., Rockville; 301-770-5020 Rockville Chinese
Shamshiry 8607 Westwood Center Dr., Vienna; 703-448-8883 Vienna Persian
•Sorriso 3518 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-537-4800 Cleveland Park Italian
Southside 815 815 S. Washington St., Alexandria; 703-836-6222 Alexandria Southern
Spices 3333-A Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-686-3833 Cleveland Park Asian
Suporn's 2302 Price Ave., Wheaton; 301-946-7613 Wheaton Thai
Tako Grill 7756 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-7030 Bethesda Japanese
Tandoori Nights 106 Market Sq., Gaithersburg; 301-947-4007 Gaithersburg Indian
Taste of Saigon Rockville, 301-424-7222; McLean, 703-790-0700 Rockville, McLean Vietnamese
Tiffin 1341 University Blvd. E., Takoma Park; 301-434-9200 Takoma Park Indian
Tono Sushi 2605 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-332-7300 Woodley Park Japanese
Tony Cheng's Seafood Restaurant 619 H St., NW; 202-371-8669 Chinatown Chinese
2 Amys 3715 Macomb St., NW; 202-885-5700 Cleveland Park Pizza
Udupi Palace 1329 University Blvd., Takoma Park; 301-434-1531 Takoma Park Indian
•Urban Bar-B-Que 2007 Chapman Ave., Rockville; 240-290-4827 Rockville Barbecue
Vinh Kee 3103-D Graham Rd., Falls Church; 703-645-0118 Falls Church Chinese

Cheap Eats: Where They Are

•Denotes Critic's Choice

District Of Columbia

Chinatown

Restaurant Cuisine
Burma Restaurant Burmese
Capital Q Barbecue
•Chinatown Express Chinese
Eat First Chinese
Five Guys Burgers
Full Kee Chinese
Lei Garden Chinese
Tony Cheng's Chinese

Upper Northwest

Restaurant Cuisine
•Cactus Cantina Tex-Mex
•Café Olé Mediterranean
Negril Jamaican
Neisha Thai Thai
Sala Thai Thai
•Sorriso Italian
Spices Asian
Tono Sushi Japanese
2 Amys Pizza

Downtown DC

Restaurant Cuisine
Bread Line American
•Malaysia Malaysian
Kopitiam
Nooshi Asian

Dupont Circle/Adams Morgan

Restaurant Cuisine
Coppi's Organic Italian
Lauriol Plaza Tex-Mex
Mama Ayesha's Lebanese
Mixtec Mexican
•Pizzeria Paradiso Pizza
Sala Thai Thai
Sette Osteria Italian

Georgetown/Glover Park

Restaurant Cuisine
Aditi Indian
Amma Indian Kitchen Indian
Cafe Divan Turkish
Five Guys Burgers
•Pizzeria Paradiso Pizza
Rocklands Barbecue

U Street/Howard University

Restaurant Cuisine
Coppi's Organic Italian
Five Guys Burgers
Sala Thai Thai

Maryland

Bethesda/Chevy Chase

Restaurant Cuisine
Faryab Afghan Afghan
Marcella's Italian
Matuba Japanese
Nam's Vietnamese
•Olazzo Italian
Sala Thai Thai
Tako Grill Japanese

College Park/Langley Park/Laurel/Largo/Prince George's County

Restaurant Cuisine
El Tapatio Mexican
Five Guys Burgers
Mandalay Burmese
Negril Jamaican
Pasta Plus Italian
Pho 75 Vietnamese

Gaithersburg

Restaurant Cuisine
Café Spice Indian
Doughboys Pizza
Dragon Chinese Chinese
Hunan Palace Chinese
Negril Jamaican
New Fortune Chinese
Tandoori Nights Indian

Rockville

Restaurant Cuisine
A&J Restaurant Chinese
Benjarong Thai
•Bob's Noodle Chinese
•Bombay Bistro Indian
Cuban Corner Cuban
El Patio Argentinean
Lebanese Taverna Lebanese
  Cafe
Pho 75 Vietnamese
•Seven Seas Chinese
Taste of Saigon Vietnamese
•Urban Bar-B-Que Barbecue

Silver Spring/Takoma Park

Restaurant Cuisine
El Gavilan Salvadoran
Guajiro Cuban
Half Moon Barbecue
Negril Jamaican
•Oriental East Chinese
Tiffin Indian
Udupi Palace Indian

Wheaton

Restaurant Cuisine
El Pollo Rico Chicken
Good Fortune Chinese
Hollywood East Cafe Chinese
Matamoros Mexican
Nam's Vietnamese
Suporn's Thai

Virginia

Restaurant Cuisine

Alexandria

Restaurant Cuisine
•A la Lucia Italian
Bombay Curry Co. Indian
•Cafe Monti Austrian-Italian
Five Guys Burgers
La Piazza Italian
101 Royal American
Po-Siam Thai
Rocklands Barbecue
Satay Sarinah Indonesian
Southside 815 Southern

Arlington/Annandale/Rosslyn

Restaurant Cuisine
A&J Restaurant Chinese
Café Parisien Fast French
Express
Cafe Tirolo Austrian-Italian
China Garden Chinese
Crystal Thai Thai
El Pollo Rico Chicken
Guajillo Mexican
Matuba Japanese
Mexicali Blues Mexican/ Salvadoran
Minh's Vietnamese
Pho 75 Vietnamese
Rocklands Barbecue
Sala Thai Thai

Falls Church/Baileys Crossroads

Restaurant Cuisine
Bubba's Bar-B-Q Barbecue
•Dragon Star Chinese
Duangrat's Thai
Flavors Soul Food Southern
•Four Sisters Vietnamese
Jasmine Garden Chinese
Lucky Three Chinese
•Mark's Duck Chinese
House
Neisha Thai Thai
Panjshir Afghan
Pho 75 Vietnamese
Rabieng Thai
Vinh Kee Vietnamese

Herndon/Reston/Sterling/Chantilly

Restaurant Cuisine
Five Guys Burgers
•Minerva Indian
Panjshir II Afghan
Pho 75 Vietnamese

Springfield

Restaurant Cuisine
Five Guys Burgers
Manila Cafe Philippine

Fairfax/Tysons/McLean/Vienna

Restaurant Cuisine
Aarathi Indian
•Bombay Bistro Indian
Bombay Tandoor Indian
China Star Chinese
•Minerva Indian
Neisha Thai Thai
Shamshiry Persian
Taste of Saigon Vietnamese

Manassas/Woodbridge

Restaurant Cuisine
Five Guys Burgers

 

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