What’s the coolest thing you can put in a dumpling? Mike Sheerin has a few ideas.
“There’s a great strawberry dish that’s served with red grapes and fresh aloe in a rye wrapper,” he says. “Dessert will give us a lot of options to get creative.”
Together with business partner Aaron DiMaria, Sheerin—previously known for his work at Blackbird, Cicchetti, and Trencherman—is now helming an ambitious new project. The working title? Packed: Dumplings Reimagined. Slated to open this summer on 57th Street in the space formerly occupied by Edwardo’s Natural Pizza (1321 E. 57th St.), Packed promises a wide array of inventive, dumpling-based entrees—everything from French onion xiaolongbao to shishito hush puppies—and, unlike Edwardo’s, it all promises to be very, very good.
The idea is the product of a long back-and-forth between DiMaria and Sheerin, whose business savvy mixed and marinated with their culinary creativity. Flavor profiles were dreamt up, reworked, discarded and dreamt up again until, at last, out of the great steam-cooker of imagination, Packed was born. But where to put it?
Though it’s hardly a food-lover’s paradise, for Sheerin, Hyde Park was an obvious choice. Raised in Chicago, Sheerin has fond memories of grabbing sandwiches from the Med and scarfing down cheeseburgers at Jimmy’s. Now Sheerin hopes to join A10 and Yusho as part of a new cadre of restaurants calling Hyde Park home.
“It’s an incredibly diverse and historic neighborhood,” Sheerin says. “But at the same time, it’s in the South Side of the city, and I think it’s been starving for some great neighborhood restaurants for a long time.”
Sheerin and DiMaria see a lot of potential for growth in the neighborhood, and hope to turn Packed into “something huge”—perhaps someday entering the pantheon of fast-casual gods alongside Chipotle and Shake Shack, with the 57th Street location as its flagship (“Twenty years from now, maybe,” Sheerin says, with measured excitement).
For now, though, Sheerin is confident that his unique take on dumplings will win big with the Hyde Park crowd. “I’m a fat kid, so of course a lot of the flavors I love are also reflective of stuff that you’d want to eat late at night or when you’re super hungry,” Sheerin says. Currently among the offerings: a pastrami dumpling with red-wine mustard and pickles and a bacon dumpling in a smoked paprika wrapper. “The combinations are really interesting and fun,” Sheerin continues, “and I think they’ll grab ahold of both your college kids as well as Hyde Park locals.”
The offerings at Packed will initially be Asian-inspired—steamed dumplings served in wicker baskets—but this is just the tip of the dumpling-berg. “I’d love to experiment with something like a potato pierogi, too,” Sheerin says. “The possibilities are sort of limitless.”
True to fast-casual form, Packed will feature limited seating, an ever-revolving and eclectic menu, counter service, and delivery. The name of the game, Sheerin says, is accessibility, but without compromising on quality. “We want a place where someone can come in and get food really quickly that’s super delicious, but that’s also hormone and antibiotic free and locally sourced.”
For Sheerin, this means weekly trips to local farmer’s markets and working closely with industry insiders, as well as with providers themselves. “I’m constantly on the phone, talking to different farmers and suppliers, sourcing ingredients and talking to different chefs about where to get the good stuff,” he says.
Of course, with all the work that goes into finding this good stuff and packing it into delicious, digestible, and inventive dumplings, the final product couldn’t possibly be cheap, could it? Well, it’s complicated.
“Of course you never want to call your food ‘cheap,’” says Sheerin. “I like to use the word ‘approachable.’ We’re using higher-end ingredients, which we have to charge for, but at the same time we don’t want to alienate the market.” Entrees will probably start in the $7 range—not bad for good food in Hyde Park. “So I guess it’s ‘cheaply approachable,’” Sheerin concludes with a laugh. “How about that?”
Sheerin is aware that the concept of “dumplings reimagined” as the basis for a fast-casual restaurant is more than a little weird. He also recognizes that, as with the “reimagining” of any foodstuff, the fare at Packed will likely be a journey of discovery for the chefs as well as the diners. “You see it happening more and more in dining—as the public becomes more educated, and more familiar with the concept, that’ll allow us to get more and more creative behind the counter,” he says.
With this in mind, Sheerin and Packed plan to start out with more traditional, “tried and true” styles of dumpling-ry, and move out from there. Is a sausage-and-pineapple pizza dumpling in an Oreo wrapper with RC Cola dipping sauce finally on the horizon for Hyde Park diners? It may be too early to say.