Before finalizing the concept for Packed, the Hyde Park dumpling restaurant opening at 11 a.m. today, there existed a long courtship between chef Mike Sheerin and owner Aaron DiMaria. DiMaria, who conceived the concept, spoke with other chefs about his idea before finding Sheerin, whose fine-dining resume includes stints at Blackbird, Trencherman, Cichetti and Embeya.
"My biggest mission was to really bridge that gap," DiMaria said. "In order to eat Mike Sheerin's food, you had to make a lot a money, and I feel there's something inherently wrong with that."
DiMaria, a New Jersey native and Rutgers University grad, began his restaurant career in the kitchen before moving on as a general manager, making stops including at A&B Lobster House in Key West, Fla. Eventually he moved to Chicago and worked as a consultant at places like the Gold Coast incarnation of Trader Vic's.
The pair met at a wedding, and with Sheerin's fine-dining experiences, the two wanted to ensure the shift to fast-casual would work before proceeding. They also found Hyde Park—the first location they scouted—as the ideal spot. DiMaria recently moved to Bronzeville, and he believes the short South Side commute made the sometimes overlooked community a great fit, which surprised him when he and his wife arrived. Sheerin lives in the South Loop.
"A few years ago I would have said 'no,'" DiMaria said. "Because I followed hot, trendy news, and I was truly ignorant of what was down here and what Bronzeville is for the South Side."
Enter Packed, which brings Sheerin's culinary skills to customers at a more accessible price point in a fast-casual environment. The restaurant, which DiMaria hopes to scale into more locations, also brings his and his wife's love of the environment to the forefront using locally-sourced ingredients and biodegradable food containers.
"I've had my share of White Castle and so on, but we've grown into this feeling that we only want to eat protein where we know where it's coming from and where we agree with the practices of the farm," he said.
After researching the concept, DiMaria estimates there are at least 90 countries with some sort of stuffed —or packed— food item. This makes dumplings a popular food, one that's easily transportable and reheats well the next day. Packed's seasonal menu will rotate and stay as local as possible, but not all ingredients for foreign flavors could be obtained that way. "I'm certainly not getting pineapple from Marengo, Ill.," DiMaria said.
The restaurant is BYO and Sparrow Coffee will supply the caffeine, including an exclusive Nicaraguan Cascara "tea" that comes from shaving a coffee bean. Those drinks and the pastrami dumpling serve as highlights for DiMaria who can't wait for Packed to become, well, packed. Check out the menu below.
Packed: Dumplings Reimagined, 1312 E. 57th St., (773) 219-6544, open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Sunday to Friday; 11 a.m. to midnight on Saturday.