Pushing boundaries and bringing folks together in Rogers
It was the cheese fries that did it. Saiwok’s smoked-pork-belly fries, to be specific. It’s kind of ironic, when you think about it, that it was a plate of fries—or rather, a close-up shot of the dish posted to Reddit (or the food “subreddit” if we’re geeking out) by a user named Tatowtot—that propelled the Rogers Vietnamese restaurant into viral territory. “I ate Vietnamese Pork Belly Fries,” reads the description above Tatowtot’s shot of the mountain of glistening crinkle fries smothered with cheese and topped with green onions, hearty pink cubes of pork belly and a yolky fried egg.
The post has garnered more than 16,000 “points” on Reddit by late afternoon, which is when I settle into one of the restaurant’s corner tables for a chat with Saiwok’s head chef, Vuong Nguyen. (The Reddit point system can be a tad jargony for the uninitiated, but suffice it to say, those fries got lots of online love today. One “OMGjenny” went so far as to opine, “I will die happy eating this.”)
But because not much gets past Redditors, mixed in with all the virtual drooling was a good-natured debate: How could a dish containing potatoes and cheese—two ingredients not typically associated with Vietnamese cuisine—be considered Vietnamese?
“Certainly, it’s a dish that’s not based on Vietnamese culture,” Vuong says. “But this is a dish we’re proud of; it’s a way for us to connect to the area. It’s a way for folks who aren’t accustomed to Vietnamese food to dip their toe in and get their palates acquired to Vietnamese flavors.”
The Vietnamese hook, he explains, is a generous sprinkling of scallion oil drizzled over the pile of melty-cheese-laden fries. A layer of Vuong’s special “kimchinaise”—a combo of mayo, kimchi and fish sauce—adds an additional Asian twist.
Vuong is completely at ease with the Reddit debate. He has no qualms about pushing the boundaries of what constitutes Vietnamese cuisine. In more ways than one, the restaurant he runs with his family was never meant to be a by-the-book Vietnamese restaurant.
For starters, there’s the food: While the Nguyens are of Vietnamese descent, the menu Vuong has created leans more Asian-fusion. Vietnamese favorites like banh mi and pho are offered alongside a variety of Asian fare, including steamed buns (called bao), dumplings and edamame, as well as playful “lava rock” dishes that are Vuong’s take on Korean barbecue. But there’s also the restaurant itself: “It’s a brick-and-mortar restaurant,” Vuong says, “but with the spirit of a food truck.”
A quick glance around validates his point. The place has a real urban-alley feel to it. A whimsical anime-graffiti mural by local artist Sasha Rayevskiy looks out on a dining room full of wooden tables and benches—many of which are communal tables. And the exposed bulbs overhead evoke a string of lights strewn above a courtyard hideaway. The very name of the place is the Nguyen family’s play on the word “sidewalk”—as well as a mash-up of “Saigon” (the largest city in Vietnam) and “wok” (the cooking apparatus used to prepare many of Vuong’s dishes).
Saiwok is a place that would surely be at home in downtown Bentonville, which, one could argue, is quickly becoming the state’s culinary juggernaut, or on the up-and-coming downtown Rogers scene. But it’s not. Instead, it’s tucked into what many refer to as “the old part of Rogers” on West Walnut Street, a sleepy strip heavily populated with big-box stores and fast-food joints.
Which, Vuong is quick to say, was very much the point.
“It’s my old stomping grounds,” Vuong tells me, looking out through the front window.
His parents came to Rogers back in 1975 as refugees during the final days of the Vietnam War. Although public opposition to Vietnamese refugees was even more intense than what today’s Syrian asylum-seekers now face, Vuong says he remembers being completely embraced by the Rogers community while he was growing up here. As I dive into my own order of smoked-pork-belly fries (I’m not letting Tatowtot have all the fun), Vuong tells me the story of when he was 10 years old and the new kid on the block in town (his family had just moved back to Rogers after relocating for a spell to California). He was playing catch by himself out in the front yard when a neighbor happened by. The neighbor coached a local Little League Baseball team and right then and there made arrangements with Vuong’s mother to have Vuong join his crew.
Vuong recalls how his parents had to work multiple jobs while he was growing up to carve out a place in their newly adopted homeland. Often they weren’t able to transport him to this or that baseball practice or game. Nonetheless, he always got a ride and plenty of support from the parents of his friends, many of whom he considers his “second family.”
That made it hard for Vuong to leave the area back in 2011. But after a more than a decade-long stint learning Asian cooking techniques at the local Shogun, he left the family nest and moved to Dallas, where he began carving out a name for himself as a chef at the highly acclaimed sushi restaurant Steel. This, he tells me, is where he really “caught the culinary bug.” At Steel, he was encouraged to be as creative as he liked and given license to source the high-end ingredients he needed to make his visions come to life.
Then one day, Vuong’s dad called him to chat about an idea he had for a family restaurant. Mr. Nguyen recognized that his son had a gift, and he wanted him to be in a position where he could have the autonomy to work for himself. Anxious to get back to the community he’d left behind, Vuong accepted. Seven months in, Saiwok has become not just a place for Vuong to shine, but a place for the entire family—his parents, his sisters, his brother-in-law and even his nephew and niece (who makes a killer macaron)—to work together to create something special.
But opening the restaurant was never just about the family, Vuong says. From the get-go, it’s been a way for the family to give back to the community that embraced them. “We wanted to create something for this area of Rogers that was unique,” he says. “A place where our community can come and eat delicious, high-quality, affordable food in a warm, fun environment.”
After Vuong and I part ways, and I finish up those fries—which, I should add, deserve every bit of the adulation they’re receiving on the interweb—I think about Vuong’s story.
It’s one that I can’t help but relate to, at least in a small way. I happen to be married to a fellow who also grew up in “the old part of Rogers.” And the very reason I’m sitting in Saiwok today is that he, like Vuong, felt called back home to the family and community he’d left behind after a move to the big city, or in his case, cities—New York and Los Angeles. And I start to wonder what my “old part of Rogers” fellow would think of Saiwok.
“So our old house was not too far from here, and right around here is where we’d score beer,” my husband says, regaling me with anecdotes from the good ol’ days while we make our way down Walnut to Saiwok on a Saturday night. After we’ve placed our order upfront, we sit down, soon realizing that we know the couple sitting next to us. Two years in, and I still get rattled by random run-ins with people I know—it’s something that’s never happened to me any other place I’ve lived. I kind of love it.
Vuong comes by, and he and my husband swap greetings, recognizing each another from the baseball field and the halls of Rogers High School. Then the food begins to arrive. We start off with a few appetizers, or “shareables.” The ginger-lime tofu bites are a delight: The outside is crispy, and the inside is light and airy. But the true showstoppers are the Brussels sprouts, which are Brussels sprouts for people who don’t like Brussels sprouts. It’s the delicately crisped leaves of the sprouts that end up between your chopsticks. Drizzled with a citrus-chili glaze, each bite is like a tiny sparkler igniting in your mouth.
We overorder. Big time. “We’ll never eat all of this,” I say when we’re forced to put a couple of dishes on the vacant table next to ours after running out of table real estate. But low and behold, we clean every plate, one after another. My meatball bowl—with grilled meatballs that are both airy and juicy served over silky vermicelli—is gone almost immediately. And our surf-and-turf lava-rock spread is decadent: Vuong’s buttery tare sauce and sweet scallion oil take the grilled beef and shrimp to a luxe level. (Pro tip: If Vuong has some of that Miyazaki wagyu beef in the house, go for it. I guarantee that OMGjenny would also die happy eating this.) Some dishes, like my date’s soft-shell crab bao, I don’t even get a taste of. Once he gets hold of it, he’s simply not willing to let go. I don’t blame him.
Needless to say, my husband is impressed with the meal and the vibe the Nguyens have created here at Saiwok. But what he keeps repeating is how glad he is that there’s now a place like this in “the old part of Rogers.” Most of the new development in the city, he points out, is either toward the mall or in downtown Rogers. It’s nice to see the area where he grew up getting some love, he says.
It takes a while to work up the momentum to pull our stuffed selves up from the table and make it to the door. Before we leave, we spend a bit of time chatting with Vuong and his sister. As we make our way to the car, I think of how pleased I am that my husband now has a place like this where he can reconnect with the area where he grew up.
As for me, I’m full. Not only of delicious food, but with appreciation toward the Nguyens—yet another Northwest Arkansas family who’s made me feel I’m at home here, too.