Sichuan food lovers in Richmond, rejoice. There's another authentic Sichuan restaurant in town besides Peter Chang China Café Short Pump.
Evo Sichuan Fine Cuisine is on Forest Hill Avenue where Asian Galaxy used to be. The restaurant is sleek and minimalist with dark wood paneling. An empty sushi bar in the lobby holds potential as a chic bar if remodeled. But for now, the main attraction is the food. The predominant chatter filling the airy space is Mandarin. A smaller dining room in the back gives non-Mandarin speaking guests a quieter area on the busy and often loud weekend nights.
Evo's menu is extensive. The list of now-familiar, thanks to Peter Chang China Café popularity, strange-sounding titles is a good sign for a restaurant touted as authentic among my Chinese friends. During many visits I find that the food is delicious, but getting a consistent level of spiciness is a challenge. The times I order Sichuan style mung bean noodles ($6) very spicy, for example, they arrive from mild to really hot.
The consistency issue happens at an inopportune time when we dine there as a group. Communal eating is the best way to enjoy an Asian feast. I make a reservation for 10 people, and we're seated immediately. The restaurant is packed with mostly Chinese customers. The atmosphere is relaxed and convivial, but borderline hectic.
The servers and manager are friendly and efficient, as usual. Hot tea is served right away, food orders taken promptly and after a normal wait time, dishes start to appear at our table. Tonight, the ma la — hot and numbing — dishes have no trace of Sichuan peppercorns, which are essential to create the ma, or numbing of the palate. We can only assume the kitchen has run out of Sichuan peppercorns on this night.
Our requested very spicy dishes are, once again, uneven. Slippery dan dan noodle ($3) swims in bright red chili oil but registers almost no heat, while ants climb the tree ($9), a similar dish of spiced ground pork and chili sauce over cellophane noodles, sets my tongue afire on contact.
Water boiled beef ($14), a benign name for a dish buried under a heap of chili peppers and oil, earns appreciative nods and lip-smacking compliments while we wipe sweat from our faces. The beef is tender, poached with salt. The texture contrasts nicely with the bold garlic, ginger, scallion and chili oil. I just wish Sichuan peppercorns are in this dish as they should be.
Other non-ma la Sichuan dishes are tasty. Spicy stir-fried smoked pork ($13) is my new favorite bacon dish. That's right, the smoked pork is actually thickly sliced Chinese bacon. Slivers of fresh green hot chilies and onions lend a touch of sweetness to the rich bacon, while intentionally scorched dried red chilies echo the smokiness. Fish filet with silk tofu ($15) is velvet smooth in texture, but packs a tremendous spicy punch with red chili oil and spicy soybean paste.
To soothe our palates, Sichuan style pickle ($3) provides relief with balanced sweet-sour-salty carrots, daikon and cucumber slices. Tomato with eggs ($9) is sweet and sour simplicity enhanced with a whisper of star anise. I have happy childhood memories associated with this humble dish, but try it once; you may be hooked for an entirely different reason.
A week later, slurping the slippery cool Sichuan spicy noodle ($3), my lips grow numb from the Sichuan peppercorns. Hot black bean chicken ($12) is wonderfully spicy and savory, with just a tinge of sweetness to balance the strong, fermented black bean flavor. Near-perfect dishes such as these keep me coming back to Evo, although after seven months in business, I hope the kitchen will be consistent sooner rather than later. S
Evo Fine Sichuan Cuisine
7048 Forest Hill Ave.
Monday-Thursday: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
Friday-Saturday: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Sunday: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.