Ever Heard of Runza? This Midwestern Sandwich Inspired an Entire Fast-Food Chain

It's a doughy, cheesy masterpiece.



Why is a sandwich so much better when it comes enveloped completely inside the bun? We're not talking about a split hoagie, a pita, or a wrap–and certainly not a calzone. We mean a pocket of doughy, fresh-baked bread stuffed with something unseen. Something wonderful. A treasure waiting to be unlocked. All you know is that it's hot and it sure smells good. And maybe that's part of the appeal: the surprise waiting inside.

What Is a Runza?

So let's say you bite into that soft crust, tear through the doughy mantle, and unleash a core of molten American cheese. Inside is greasy ground beef, seasoned and buttery, mixed with grilled onions and cabbage—yes, cabbage.

Such is the wonder of the runza, a rectangular pocket of yeast dough filled with ground beef, cabbage, and other fixings for a grab-and-go food that, like Tater Tot Hot Dish, Dorothy Lynch Homestyle Dressing, and dessert salads,  is uniquely Midwestern.

Where Did the Runza Originate?

It's the cabbage that roots this delicacy firmly in the Nebraska soil, where German-Russian immigrants settled in the late 19th century. One of the recipes they brought was the bierock, a pocket-pastry sandwich filled with savory ingredients, sometimes including sauerkraut. No one is sure where the name "runza" came from (perhaps for the Low German "runsa" which means “bun shape,” or the soft shape of a round belly), but in 1949, two descendents of one of those immigrant families, Sally Everett and her brother Alex Brening, opened the first Runza Drive Inn in Lincoln, Neb., serving the family version of the sandwich.

What Is the Fast Food Chain Called Runza?

Today, there are more than 80 Runza fast-food restaurants spanning four states–Iowa, Kansas, Colorado, and of course, Nebraska, whose residents have largely adopted the delicacy as something of an unofficial state food. The franchise has trademarked the word "runza," but you can still find old-school bierocks across the Great Plains. The difference lies not so much in the ingredients as in the shape: bierocks are round and runza (runzas? runzi?) are rectangular.

But Runza is by far the easiest place to find them, and for our money, the most worthwhile. The treat comes in all sorts of varieties, from mushroom and Swiss to spicy jack to BBQ bacon, but we recommend the cheese runza, the original beef-onion-and-cabbage with melted American cheese. Don't worry: It's a delicious surprise even if you know what's inside.

If you can’t make it to the motherland of the runza, there’s always the home-cooked route, with traditional handheld runzas or runza casserole for a crowd.