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Based on observation, Taiwanese dim sum at Vora differs from Chinese dim sum in Chinatown in several important ways:
You order off a menu instead of picking items off of a cart.
You can have dim sum whenever you want, even for dinner.
It is, on average, twice as expensive, at $6 a plate, except for the Taiwan gua-bao (translated as "pork sliders"), which are $8. They're pretty good, though.
Based on research, Taiwanese dim sum differs from mainland dim sum in that it's a lot funkier.
Taiwan has a long and complicated political history, reflected in its cuisine, which has elements of both northern and southern China and also of Japan. "But really, Taiwanese food is like Voltron," chef Eddie Huang writes in Bon Appetit. "These imports form the arms and legs, but the all-important head is a native cuisine of fermented, cured, and preserved food, littered with offal and shellfish." Taiwanese food is supposed to be funky. Its funkiness reaches its apotheosis in stinky tofu.
There is no stinky tofu on the menu at Vora. The dim sum menu is largely comprised of the same sort of buns, dumplings, and crispy rolls you might find in Chinatown. There is a little bit of funk in evidence, though: shin-jian bao (pan-fried pork dumplings) and what the menu calls noodle threads with oyster or vegetable, although it was served with mussel, not oyster. (The menu will be updated soon, our waiter told us.) I think in Taiwan it's known as o a mi sua. It's a brown soup filled with vermicelli noodles topped with a lot of cilantro and flavored with chili oil, garlic, and white pepper. At food stands in Taiwan, apparently, you can add chile sauce, minced garlic, and vinegar, but at Vora you eat it as is.
At first we didn't like it. It tasted kind of like miso, but not as salty. It tasted a little like beef broth, but not as rich. It tasted a little bit like mushrooms, but not as earthy. Later I found out that the broth was hondashi, made from kelp and tuna flakes, which explained the funk. The spices were very subtle. We couldn't figure it out. We'd never had anything like it before.
A lot of the time, food follows the economic law of diminishing returns. The first few bites or sips of something are great. By the next few, you've grown accustomed to greatness, but it still tastes pretty good. And then you don't notice it as much anymore. It ceases to bring pleasure. You're ready for the next course. (Can this explain the overwhelming recent popularity of tasting menus?)
This soup didn't work that way. We kept taking spoonfuls because, we told each other, we couldn't figure out the flavor. We thought we would get bored by the time the next round of dim sum plates arrived. But then a weird thing happened: We kept eating. And the more we ate, the better it tasted.
Was it because we were still puzzling through a mixture of flavors we'd never had before? Was it because of some inherent property in the soup, combined with November weather, that made it magically irresistible? Whatever the case, we didn't stop eating until we'd finished the whole crock.
Vora, 1028 N. Clark, 773-929-2035, vorachicago.com