Bewitched, bewildered, bothered…I’m falling in love. With eyes closed tightly, I lower my head down and forward, lips wet and parted, breathing in the exotic, yet familiar fragrances of beef broth, sweet star anise, ultra-fresh basil, spicy cilantro, red onions, and the crisp, red heat of chili peppers. A thin, delicious dew gathers across my face from the steam that has risen up to wrap around my neck and head – I’m mesmerized, but can’t help think, “Not only does this smell divine, but I bet it makes my skin and hair look incredible..”
I open my eyes to navigate my utensils, twirling the slippery noodles around my chopsticks, dunking the sexy bundle into a single, deep spoon of beef broth before plopping the entire thing carelessly into my mouth; sl-u-u-u-u-u-u-r-r-r-r-p-p-p-p…barely enough time for a single drop of the copper liquid to run down my chin before repeating the ritual of falling in love all over again. Yawn – Spent – Nighty Night…this Pho Beef is a dream come true.
Wake UP! No time to rest, because this is the mere beginning of what promises to be an epic dinner of Vietnamese – Americana fusion street food from Saiwok. My new favorite Rogers restaurant fills a much needed gap left from when Heirloom closed its doors in 2016, leaving discriminating foodies sad, cold, and hungry for artful sustenance. Saiwok is a brilliant family endeavor, led delicately by Chef Vuong Nguyen and his father, along with a mosaic of friends, family, and staff that move together like a well-oiled, Asian dumpling, snuggle machine. Collaboration is the key here, and Vuong touts his success to the “love” that each family member puts into his or her important role at the restaurant...server, dishwasher, cook…it doesn’t matter, everyone is valued, therefore everyone has skin in the game; which means that this “end game” is nothing short of extraordinary, from the ambient experience all the way to the culturally diverse food.
The look and feel of Saiwok is casual and comfortable, almost as if you were walking into to the home of the Nguyen family, complete with a friendly smiles and welcoming fragrances from their lineage. The process includes a demi service where we queue up to a large menu board, while gaining access to a glimpse into an open display kitchen chock full of rising steam, busy staff, sizzling sounds, and a cross section of foreign languages that seem to simultaneously quicken the pulse and enhance the experience. Once the order is made, we navigate to one of many long communal tables to allow for our order to be laid out and unfolded before us; an intentional design nuance that invites large groups to dine with old friends while making new ones. There’s also a small bar area that accommodates a half dozen spaces if you feel like grabbing a quick bite with an ice cold beer…one of my favorite things to when dining alone in Rogers.
Suddenly, a myriad of food begins to arrive in gorgeous shareable waves…first out is the the Roasted Brussel Sprouts ($9) and Urban Street Corn ($7); the sprouts are served in a shallow platter, wok flashed to caramelized perfection, boasting a thin, featherlike crunch against a back drop of soy, sesame, and something slightly sweet; light, salty, charred, and utterly delicious…I could eat this for days. The Urban Street Corn is quick grilled, boasting a pop of flavor from each kernel that has been embellished with earthy scallion oil and a whisper dusting of chili garlic butter; the pretty butter “slow jams” its way across the cob, a sexy come hither ritual that is more than just an invitation to take a bite.
Before we have time to collect ourselves, we’re presented with an oval platter of Smoked Pork Belly Fries ($9), the talk of the culinary town; crispy, crinkle cut fries stratified with smoked pork belly, scallions, a single wobbly fried egg, and kimchinase, mayo fused with homemade kimchi. Culinary nirvana abounds, these crunchy, sauce laden fries are perfect for chop sticks, especially as I penetrate the center of the egg, sending a cascade of yellow love around the charred, slightly sweet bits of pork belly. I know now why this dish is the chef and foodie talk of the town, it’s a brilliant exercise in edible culture fusion, and well worth the trip to Saiwok alone.
The hits just keep on coming in the way of Pan Seared Pork Dumplings ($6), finished with a fragrant truffle oil ponzu and micro greens; and then a beautifully composed Beef Crudo ($15) made with medium rare seared New York Strip steak, avocado, and a touch of citrus truffle oil.
Saiwok also does a score of delicious steamed buns that include soft shell crab, pork belly, tofu, and my favorite, Duck Duck Goose ($5) made with roasted, smoked duck, pickled veggies, scallions, and hoisin sauce…an Asian slider of sorts that even my finicky pre-teen will eat. And what better way to satisfy a meal ending sweet tooth, then with any number of delectable popsicles from Pedal Pops, Northwest Arkansas’ own artisanal frozen glory on a stick. You may have seen owner Mike Thompson, (quite literally) pedaling his wares at any one of the regional festivals, Crystal Bridges, or even the Fayetteville Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings; regardless, his product is local, delicious, and now available at Saiwok, with flavors like Brown Sugar Vanilla, Honeydew Peach, and Vietnamese Mocha.
The culinary virtues of Saiwok are indisputable, offering a delicious narrative about family, authenticity, and brilliantly prepared and executed cuisine; still, there’s a deeper, more relevant thing happening, that forces us all to take notice of the edible culture of our diverse community. If there’s ever a suspicion that Northwest Arkansas is moving in the wrong direction, please make plans to stop by Saiwok and you’ll quickly garner an understanding, glimpse, and taste of all the beauty and good that can come from an evolving community and culture…a dream come true.
Citiscapes Article - Originally published in October 2017