Less Killing! Tastes Great!

Evos' mostly meatless fare is fast — and low on guilt

click to enlarge EVOLVED EDIBLES: Evos hopes survival of the fittest - applies to the fast food biz. - LISA MAURIELLO
EVOLVED EDIBLES: Evos hopes survival of the fittest applies to the fast food biz.

Healthful fast food may sound like a contradiction in terms, but a local restaurant owner thinks its time has come.

Evos (pronounced EE-voz) offers the dining public low-fat, low-calorie fare, from a company that takes pride in its environmentally friendly policies. Its name stands for "evolution."

"Evos is about evolving to the next step in fast food," explained Dino Lambridis, one of the small chain's three owners, who opened their original restaurant in 1999 along Tampa's S. Howard Avenue and now operate three in the Bay area. "We believe that Evos is where ... the future of fast food is."

"We're serving a demand. People want to be able to grab a burger or light wrap, and not feel weighted down, and not feel guilty about eating it. We provide a guilt-free experience."

The chain has made a splash in the national news media: The October issue of Fitness magazine features Evos in an article about the best healthy fast food, and it is also mentioned in October's Southern Living. In an article about the future of fast food, USA Today named Evos one of the nation's up-and-comers.

So how is the food, really? It's not all soy burgers and tasteless, cardboard chicken. Some of the dishes are really quite tasty; others, let's just say they might be something of an acquired taste.

Those accustomed to fruit smoothies and interesting salads will like Evos' fare from the get-go. Those accustomed to snarfing Big Macs and greasy fries may have to retrain their taste buds. It's worth the effort if you don't want to doom yourself to an early grave by clogging your heart valves with saturated fat.

However, by making the right choices, you don't have to suffer in order to live a long and happy life. Quite a few of Evos' dishes are really good and close enough to the mainstream that they do not pose a huge stretch for the average eater. (Keep in mind, too, that the "mainstream" is, itself, changing by the day: Wendy's last year rolled out a line of fancy salads that have been very popular. McDonald's, with its stock languishing at a seven-year low, cut the amount of saturated fat in its french fries and added to its menus a healthful parfait made with fresh fruit and low-fat yogurt.)

Inside, the Evos restaurants are clean, spare with plastic furniture, and colorful in bright lime, yellow and red. An overhead TV is muted, except for special occasions. The day of the Triple Crown horse race at Belmont the whole staff at the Howard Avenue location tuned in to cheer their favorite thoroughbred across the finish line.

Evos clientele leans toward the young and hip. At noon, it's mobbed with thin diners yakking on cellphones, eating and reading newspapers or working on laptops. Vegetarians like it because they have a broad choice of meatless dishes.

One terrific thing about Evos is its fast service, even though many of its dishes are cooked to order as you wait. Although the company is just now ready to do its first drive-through, counter service takes less than 10 minutes; I've waited longer fuming in the drive-through at Burger King for its awful infarction inducers.

Start with a salad. If you don't want to wait at all, pick one of three very good choices — Mediterranean summer ($5.37), with light olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette dressing; California ranch ($4.99), with light ranch dressing; or spicy Mandarin Thai ($4.99), with chili pepper dressing. Remove from the cooler, pay, and you're outta there in two minutes. The organic greens are inevitably fresh and flawless; the dressings are respectable.

A new dish I found outstanding is being marketed as a special: a chipotle chopped steak wrap ($4.99, 500 to 550 calories, and 18 grams of fat), all-natural, free-range steak made with southwest salsa and a feisty, reduced-fat chipotle sauce, encased in a honey wheat tortilla.

I also enjoyed the restaurant's most popular dish, the crispy Thai trout wrap ($4.99, 660 calories, 15 fat grams), which sounds gross, but was actually good. It's made from a breaded trout patty that is grilled then chopped, and wrapped in a spinach-herb tortilla, along with scented basmati rice, organic greens and crispy rice noodles, moistened with a sprite Thai peanut butter-chili pepper dressing. It burns with a modest, spicy heat that gives the whole dish a charming little kick.

Its popularity among diners was unexpected: "It's just amazing; we would have never thought that item would go," said Lambridis with a laugh. "Everybody went crazy for it, it's our number one seller."

Skip the tasteless, rubbery honey mesquite chicken burger meal ($5.59 with drink, $6.48 with fruit smoothie) in favor of the restaurant's steakburger combo ($5.98 with drink, $6.78 with smoothie): A Montana free-range burger (510 calories, 14 fat grams), air fries (172 calories, 5 fat grams) and drink.

The burger is drier and less tender than its high-fat competitors, but I liked it. The air fries I left in the box; no-cholesterol french fries that are baked rather than fried do not compare favorably to those at McDonald's; but then, I consider french fries an occasional treat, not an everyday dish. When I want them I order real ones, and take the high-fat, calorific consequences.

Skip the dessert items; they're truly awful, especially the carob-coated, cholesterol-free, vegetarian doughnut and a packaged chocolate chip cookie.

Still, I think Dino and Evos are on the right track. Why not give it a try and see if you agree?

Food Editor Sara Kennedy dines anonymously, and Weekly Planet pays for her meals. She can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 116.

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