My first visit to the recently opened, and now recently closed, Packed: Dumplings Reimagined was full of expectations. I put aside my traditionalist views on dumplings and was ready to embrace the vision of Chef Mike Sheerin and Aaron DiMaria’s new, sustainably sourced, “farm-driven” fast food joint.
While ordering at the cash register and browsing the menu, I couldn’t help feeling the indignant insecurity in DiMaria’s manner, almost desperate to defend the unconventional dumpling fillings. This was off-putting, as I was genuinely willing to give each one of the dumplings a try. After all, Mike Sheerin, once Chef de Cuisine at Paul Kahan’s Blackbird, was supposedly behind these dumplings, so I had to pay my respects.
However, the reality was that the beautiful produce and proteins that Packed sourced were not handled well. Their Peking Duck dumpling punched the palate with ginger, and their Pastrami reeked of salty whole-grain mustard. Their take on macaroni and cheese was a lazy combination of udon noodles and sticky queso cheese, unsalvageable even with toppings of raw jalapeños and stale dried shiitake. Lackluster food was compounded by a dent in my wallet and small portion sizes to create an extraordinarily mediocre experience.
To reiterate, I’m not opposed to innovative interpretations of traditional cuisines. Whether a Chinese dumpling, Polish pierogi, or Italian ravioli, this food form—things sealed in dough and then cooked—serves a few key functions that must not be screwed up.
The dough must be properly cooked. Notes of raw flour are not welcome.
There must be some flavorful liquid. I don’t care if it’s gooey cheese or porky soup, this is the dumpling’s quintessential trait.
The filling needs to be seasoned well. You have one chance to salt the product you want to showcase, and that is before cooking. No sauce or extra salt and pepper atop the finished product is going to redeem an under-seasoned filling.
Packed violated all three of these criteria. What was termed as “reimagined” consisted mostly of familiar, even clichéd flavor combinations inconsiderately sealed in dumpling wrappers. Did the corn dog really need to be in dumpling form? The Spicy Meatball Dumpling was pleasant, but I would have been just as happy with two succulent meatballs.
Sheerin and DiMaria weren’t working the same magic as Roy Choi with the Kogi Truck in Los Angeles or Eddy Huang with Bauhaus in New York. More often than not, the pursuit of reimagination and/or cultural fusion will please neither trendy foodies nor purists.
Packed’s colorful website, sleek wooden decor, and avid social media managers dialed into the millennial aesthetic: fast, trendy, and environmentally friendly. Both Packed’s opening and premature closing gathered a considerable amount of attention, which is a testament to its customers’ faith in its mission. Packed wasn’t inherently doomed, just badly executed.