I drove right past Saiwok in Rogers on my first visit. My GPS told me to turn into a seemingly vacant strip mall that I thought was certainly not where I was going. But it’s there, tucked away quietly in the back of a row of pastel-colored storefronts. I came because this is where almost everybody in Northwest Arkansas’ restaurant industry goes; nearly every chef I know pointed me in that direction. And of course they were right. Saiwok Vietnamese Street Food is a stunning experience in more ways than one.
Saiwok is a coming-together of the life events of Vuong Nguyen. Born in Bentonville, Nguyen grew up in his family’s restaurant Quick Wok, a Chinese-themed fast-service restaurant. Nguyen left Bentonville for Dallas at age 27 and worked in several restaurants over the next 15 years. That was when his father called him with the opportunity to start a restaurant of his own in Rogers. Nguyen brought his new wife home and worked with his dad to start Saiwok.
“It’s a collaboration between my father and myself, and elements this area brings us,” said Nguyen. “I have to ask, how do I modernize certain things but keep the traditional flavors there. Fresh ingredients is always my first priority, and how to maintain that quality where people believe it’s untouched.”
Saiwok is a modern take on several types of Vietnamese street food. The menu bursts with different types of banh mi, soups, baos (steamed buns), bowls, salads and shareables. Everything on the menu is grounded in Vietnamese flavors, like Brussels sprouts cooked in a chili glaze, or a street corn topped with scallion oil. Nguyen says it was a balancing act deciding how many items to sell at Saiwok.
“We had to figure out how to shrink it,” said Nguyen. “We still wanted to give the people so many options, but yet not hurt our team by getting stuck on just one thing. We had to still be efficient in what we do. We wanted to pick some certain things that are new to this area and help people understand that all these food options are out there.”
So you might have some difficulty narrowing down what you want, but in my experience, you could practically close your eyes and point. Saiwok’s food is fabulous. A gorgeous shrimp shumai (a dumpling snack) packs mild shrimp flavor with a sweet citrus sauce. The build-your-own bowl has so many possible outcomes, and my lemongrass chicken bowl with vermicelli noodles was bursting with flavor. The texture of the banh mi bun is perfect, and my brisket with hoisin and jalapenos was tender and satisfying. But my favorite pick was a soft shell crab bao with pickled vegetables. The crab is fresh, and the bun is whisper-light and fluffy. It’s a showstopper when it first comes to the table, and the flavor will stay in your mind long after it’s gone. Oh, and the prices are almost unbelievable. The most expensive listed item is $15, but the vast majority of dishes run $5-$7.
Coming soon, you’ll be able to experience Saiwok in a new way. Nguyen is introducing something he’s calling the “Home Menu.” At dinner, a large party will be able to order from a prix fixe menu and share several dishes family-style. Nguyen says it’s a move inspired by his own family’s dinner traditions.
“When we would go to my family’s garden, we would go and pick the fresh vegetables, whatever is out there,” said Nguyen. “We would make it into a stir fry, we would make it into a soup, we’ll have a protein, we’ll have rice and we’ll have fruit. These are elements we would have at dinner, and that’s what we want to do with this menu.”
Also coming soon is PokeTower, a poke concept that will open beside Saiwok with connected dining rooms. But really, you shouldn’t wait for these new changes to go. What Saiwok is right now is superb. It’s value like you can’t find anywhere else, with expertly crafted Vietnamese flavors that will amaze you and make you wish you could take the restaurant home with you. If you life in Northwest Arkansas, make Saiwok a priority visit; if you are just visiting, don’t miss it.