This year the first ever street food hawker was awarded a Michelin star in Singapore. With many of the dishes fetching under $3USD, the acknowledgement was a refreshing step away from the class-system in food, and of something many of us have known forever – street food is legit. Saiwok Vietnamese Street Food in Rogers looks to bring that same level of overall good street food to NWA, even if it is in a brick and mortar location.
“It’s a play on words: Street food… sidewalk… wok… Saigon… Saiwok,” Chef Vuong Nguyen explains his clever restaurant name. So now you know! His family has long-time NWA roots, and after he’d been away for years, experiencing life and cooking in the big city, his father convinced him to return home and open his own place. They shared a vision of the whole family working together to make it happen.
“People wonder if we are a franchise because of the newer building, but we are a local family restaurant,” Nguyen tells me with a smile. He’s soft-spoken but direct – a great combo. His straight-billed black Saiwok ball cap sits slightly askew to one side, and he takes the time to sit with me for a rare break mid-afternoon. He lights up when he talks about his father.
“My dad’s always wanted to open a family place. I wanted to make him happy and show my appreciation for all the years he supported me in school and when I played baseball in college. He knew how hard I worked and talked to me about going into business for myself, so that me and my family could benefit from all my effort rather than making other people’s businesses successful.”
Before Nguyen opened Saiwok he worked as a chef for fifteen years, most recently for five of them at Steel Restaurant & Lounge in Dallas as the sushi chef. His protein-sourcing practices and his devoted commitment to serve only the best ingredients he can find is a big reason why his food stands out.
Nguyen tells me, “We utilize every part of each product that comes in to the restaurant and the aim is to waste nothing. We support local, we use hydroponics, and many organics. We’re not trying to fit in any certain lane or expectation here, but we are trying to keep things creative and unique, and keep the highest quality standards. We want to do our own thing that will set us apart and keep the focus on the food.”
He’s got our attention. Visiting Saiwok often, it’s like the meeting place for the who’s who of the food scene in NWA.
The restaurant interior was designed by Chef Vuong and he did the buildout himself with the help of family and friends. A true labor of love. From the cool stump stools and slab tables made from oak trees felled right here in the Ozarks with hundreds of man-hours behind them; to the bubbly street art mural painted by local artist, Sasha Rayevskiy @tigersasha, there isn’t a part left untouched by his unique style.
With a foundation in Vietnamese street food, Saiwok is an open kitchen, fast-casual concept. They wanted a backyard/food truck vibe inside a brick and mortar location, and they’ve achieved it. You order at the counter, are given a number, and then plant yourself wherever. The dining area is filled with communal tables with smaller tables bordering the surrounding banquettes – several big screen tvs keep the walls alive with activity and a full bar with signature cocktails and local beers on tap round out the reasons the setup encourages guests to have fun and interact.
I’ve done my research on this one, folks. Lifted so many chopsticks and hoisted so many soup spoons to the repository above my broth-soaked chin, that my hands have forgotten how to use a fork.
And good riddance.
No fork needed for the pillowy-soft bao buns. Several choices on offer, but I love the one stuffed with soft shell crab, pickled veggies and the same unagi sauce that always accompanies that classic mouth-stuffer at sushi – the spider roll. However, the Mi Fried Wonton Soup might be my favorite thing. . .
It’s Nguyen’s take on ramen and a delicious departure from the solid traditional beef pho on offer here. The Mi, comes with chewy egg noodles, pork bone broth, perfectly soft quail eggs, char sui pork, shrimp and crispy wontons on the side to break up and plunk in. He also makes the sauces that come along with it. Do not skip stirring in a little mustard. Trust.
I indulged in Miyazaki A5 Wagyu-grade beef for the first time at Saiwok. Defying detailed description, it is, quite literally, the best beef in the world – a rare find for Rogers, AR. Served raw, cherry red and perfectly marbled, fanned out next to fresh veggies and sauces, you get to cook it yourself at the table on a screaming hot lava rock. The experience is worth every penny of the MKT pricetag, and the “Sidewalk” sharable items of Crispy Brussels Sprouts in chili sauce and grilled Urban Street Corn were perfect alongside.
They offer build-your-own bowls with endless possible combinations, and Banh Mi minis that have all the traditional elements fused with fun takes. There’s the spin on a French dip – the Pho Au Jus, and a meatball sub – the Xiu Mai with Vietnamese pork meatballs, garlic marinara sauce and mozzarella.
The only challenging thing about Saiwok is that they have the nerve to offer so many craveable gotta-have-its, that narrowing down to order is so hard. . . And so over-ordering (if there is such a thing) is so easy!
But just go with it. Go often. And eat everything. I’ll see you there!
Duck. Fat. Fried. Rice.
2882 W Walnut St, Ste 5
Monday – Thursday: 11-9
Friday & Saturday: 11-10