Is Runza Good?

by shellhaas

Is Runza Good? As a native Nebraskan, I’ve been taught to believe so. In fact, most Nebraskans believe in the “goodness” of this particular fast food franchise. We accept these restaurants as a destination as a matter of course and liking and defending Runza is more than a matter of taste; it’s a matter of identity. According to Runza’s website “the difference is real.” But is Runza “real”ly good?

For those of you not from Nebraska, a runza is a loose meat sandwich made popular by the fast food chain of the same name. A runza, according to folklore, is a traditional German dish more widely known as bierocks. These pocket pastries reflect a basic principle common to a variety of regional and ethnic cuisines. Something like a pierogi, stromboli, or xiaobao, a runza consists of a filling—in this case pan-cooked ground beef, onion, and cabbage—wrapped in raw dough and cooked again—this time baked. Traditional beirocks sometimes include ground pork, sauerkraut, and shredded carrots.
I have trouble defining a Runza meal as “good”, but I can’t help but like it. The meat-filled buns have been a part of my diet for as long as I can remember. The firm, chewy bread, like warm skin in my hands. The smell of meat. The soft squish of crinkle cut fries. When I hold a runza, I hold something weighty and substantial. I think of snow days, and family picnics, and movie night with my brother. For fast food, Runza isn’t that bad. The staff mixes and leavens the bread dough every morning. Somebody shreds cabbage, chops onion, and seasons and browns the meat on site. There’s a fair amount of actual cooking that goes into Runza’s runzas, much more than Subway’s or McDonald’s unpack, heat, and serve cuisine. I also know my sandwich and fries will be warm anytime I order. Runza makes consistent efforts to provide a fresh, hand-made product. In fact, their recent ad campaign focuses on this practice. Runza doesn’t serve breakfast because the employees are hard at work making lunch. But effort does not always result in quality. I know, you should see my attempts at carpentry.

Maybe Runza is good. It might be an example of authentic local cuisine that outsiders don’t appreciate. Perhaps the loose meat filled bun is to people from the coasts what oysters are to people from the plains: a delicacy one must learn to appreciate. I can’t help but worry, though, that my affection for Runza doesn’t arise from an objective assessment of the “goodness” of the food but rather some kind of closed-circuit conditioning. The positive feed-back loop of a community who has convinced itself a particular behavior is good and right. The execution of “witches” arose from similar closed-minded and closed-society thinking.

I began to question my youthful devotion to Runza when I moved away from my childhood home in Grand Island, Nebraska. I’ve worked in almost every state in the US and consider myself a devotee of local cuisine. I’ve never come across a restaurant that serves runzas in any other part of the country, certainly not a chain restaurant dedicated to this particular sandwich.I know bierocks pop up in Kansas, especially around Wichita, and apparently a small community of beirock enthusiasts inhabit Fresno. But no one has ever, when I’ve asked “What’s good around here?” suggested anything like a runza. If the meat-filled popovers had an inherent quality, wouldn’t people from other places eat them? It’s not just runzas’ limited geographic range that intrigues me. It would be one thing if the sandwich remained an undiscovered secret, but people from elsewhere know about runzas and most people from other places find Runza repellent. The meat, onion, cabbage, bread combo is bland, gooey, and produces an unfortunate cruciferous vegetable aroma. Out-of-staters who consume a runza range from the repelled to the gratified, but few become loyal enthusiasts.

The alloy of regional limitation and local devotion has placed Runza in a unique position for a fast food chain. Every location keeps cases of sandwiches in the freezer to sell to Nebraskans who have moved away. The effects of Runza withdrawal manifest in peculiar ways. When my wife and I got caught up in our Seattle lives and hadn’t made it back to Nebraska for a year, the cravings hit. We spent a weekend making runzas, enough to freeze and keep for months. I once sat next to a woman on a flight from San Francisco to Omaha who brought an empty cooler as her only piece of checked luggage; she planned on buying a year’s worth of Nebraska fast food to take back to a city I have always perceived as a food paradise. Nebraskans don’t crave a runza—they crave the Runza. Anyone who can make a sausage pizza with a homemade crust can make bierocks. Whipping up a batch for family dinner takes less than 45 minutes of hands-on preparation. Yet hundreds, if not thousands of Nebraskans come back and buy the Runza franchise variety product and cart it back cross country rather than make their own.

Nebraskans aren’t alone in their odd proclivities. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania has managed to celebrate local slop to a level that has convinced the rest of the nation to participate in the madness. When you get off the plane in Steel City cab drivers, concierges, and passers-by will recommend a favorite local restaurant featured on The Travel Channel and Food Network: Primanti’s. If you watch this “Man Versus Food” clip  you won’t actually hear Adam say the food tastes good, because it doesn’t.  The monster sandwiches feature nasty meat, a smut of unimaginative slaw, a crown of cold French fries, and stale bread. I couldn’t stand Primanti’s. The residents of Pittsburgh love it. But they also love scrapple. It’s their culture.

So is Runza the Nebraska Primanti’s? Does the restaurant rely on an incestuous feedback loop of positive praise reinforcing peculiar, even wrong-minded eating habits among the locals? Probably. When compared to other national fast food chains, Runza is better, but when considered as food in a broader sense, Runza falls short. But that doesn’t keep me from going there. And this is what worries me most.

I don’t take my 4 year old son to McDonald’s or Burger King on principle. But I do take him to Runza. When he reaches into that bag and pulls out a soft, barely golden, crinkle cut fry and blows on it until it’s cool enough to shove into his mouth he inherits a tradition. The food from Runza makes him happy. And seeing him happy makes me happy. It’s hard to argue against the goodness of a food that so snugly brings Nebraskans together. People from out of state might not ever be able to appreciate the meaty, doughy, lump. It’s not the cuisine of a larger community. But that’s not the point of a Runza. It’s fast food that doesn’t feel fast. For better or worse, it’s fast food that feels like family.

Codicil
by mik

As a non-Nebraskan, I’ve always found the local zeal for Runza intriguing. I’ll eat Runza, sometimes I even like Runza, but generally I find the fries undercooked and the sandwiches gummy. One of the peculiarities of a Runza is the more fillings and flavors you add, the worse it gets. I believe pizza should have a minimum of 3 toppings and a 7 topping pizza is even better. Burgers should have at least 3 toppings, in addition to any sauces. Order a Runza though, and you’re better off ordering the plain. A cheese Runza gets gooey, and a Swiss cheese mushroom Runza is barely palatable–and I like Swiss cheese and Mushrooms. The nature of Runza defies food logic. Because Amanda is a devoted Lincolnite and a native Nebraskan whose dedication to Runza has outlasted an adolescent devotion to Amigo’s and Taco Inn, we get Runza on occasion. I have found most locations are willing to make a jalapeno mushroom Runza, which is pretty good, but not as good as a jalapeno mushroom pizza. After discussing this post with Shellhaas and doing “research” (eating at Runza a few times) with him and our spouses, I concluded I could do better.

My kitchen confidence often rises above my kitchen competence but I was pretty sure I could make a better product, from scratch, without the help of a recipe.

I set the following parameters.
No recipe–not a bit of one. Make everything from invention or memory.
Stay true(ish) to the origin of bierocks. Use the flavors of central Europe–so no cheating by making astromboli,  kimchi egg rolls, or burritos.
I have to eat it and I have to share the product with others to get an honest opinion.

I made two different kinds. Things turned out great.
Mik’s Pretzel Dough Bierocks (Pretzel Boys)
The Dough.
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 package yeast
3 ½ cups flour
1 ½  cups of warm water.
1 large egg, beaten

Mix yeast, sugar, and water and let stand until mixture becomes frothy (about 10 minutes).
Wisk together flour and salt in large mixing bowl.
Combine water and flour mixtures and work with a wooden spoon until it forms a dough.
Turn dough out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic. The dough should retain some springiness and stickiness but not feel tacky. (5-10 minutes)
Return dough to bowl, cover tightly, and let rise for 45-60 minutes.
Heat oven to 425 degrees.
Turn dough out onto a floured surface, punch down, and knead gently (1-2 minutes)
Divide dough into 8-10 even balls. Each will be a bit bigger than a ping-pong ball but smaller than a racquet ball.
Press each ball into a flat oval. Dough should remain ⅛” thick.
Ladle filling mixture into the center of the oval–about 2-3 heaping tablespoons.
Fold dough around mixture and pinch the seams closed.
Transfer bundle to a flat baking sheet (I covered mine in parchment paper).
Repeat process for all the dough balls.
Dough will continue to rise and expand, leave a few inches between each bierock.
Allow bierocks to rise for about 10 minutes. Check the seams.
Paint the top side of each bierock with beaten egg.
Bake in center or top rack for 35 minutes.

The Fillings:
Beef, Cabbage, Mushroom, & Onion (this one was good, what I wished Runza’s tasted like)
1 pound lean ground beef (consider as 2 parts)
1 small white onion (minced)
1 part shredded cabbage by volume
1 part chopped brown mushrooms by volume
1 clove garlic (minced)
Mustard Seed (a fair amount)
Caraway Seed (same as mustard)
Nutmeg (just a bit)
Salt (quite a bit)
Black Pepper (quite a bit)
In a skillet, brown ground beef.
Add onion, garlic, and other spices early in the process.
Mix in cabbage and mushrooms after beef has browned.
Reduce heat and simmer until cabbage and mushrooms have softened.
To minimize moisture, I drained the fluid out of the mixture before filling the dough.

Pork, Kraut, Apples, & Onion (this one was really good, like a Victorian Christmas)
1 pound ground pork
16 oz of sauerkraut (drained by pressing) I used Claussen’s
2 Granny Smith apples (peeled, cored, and chopped)
1 small white onion (minced
1 clove garlic (minced)
Mustard Seed (a fair amount)
Caraway Seed (same as mustard)
Ground Nutmeg (a bit)
Ground Cinnamon (3 times as much as nutmeg)
Salt (quite a bit)
Black Pepper (quite a bit)
In a skillet, brown the ground pork
Add onion, garlic, and other spices early in the process.
Mix in kraut and apples as pork nearly browns. Be sure to separate clumps of kraut.
Reduce heat and simmer until apples have softened.
To minimize moisture, I drained the fluid out of the mixture before filling the dough.

I shared my pretzel boys with my co-workers at lunch. Even having frozen and reheated the leftovers, the product received good reviews.

8 thoughts on “Is Runza Good?

  1. I have lived in Lincoln my whole life, but my most recent Runza adventure was a couple years ago. I am just not a fan. Their burgers are darn decent though if you get a fresh one. With all the new burger places I kind of forgot about Runza being good quality.

  2. I enjoy Runzas fries and hamburgers but I find the actual runzas awful. They’re mushy and the innards might as well be a paste. Homemade runzas are absolutely better as any German from Russia worth their salt (lots of it) can attest.

  3. Pingback: REPOSTING: Foodpocalypse does Runza · BEERORKID

  4. Very nicely written article and good thoughts. Speaking objectively as a non-native Nebraskan, if you remove the nostalgia factor I find them to be above average at best. Its a shame because I do think there is a market out there, regionally, even nationally, for these types of old school stuffed European sandwiches, but the quality is going to have to be increased a notch, and I think that would require a complete reinvention of Runza as a chain (which isn’t going to happen).

  5. mik MUST come to my house soon so we can make these bierocks and enjoy some hockey if they ever play it professionally again. great article, guys.

  6. I grew up with Runza, but honestly 90% of the time I had a burger. A runza isn’t terrible, but they HAD the best burgers for fast food hand down. I’ve noticed in the past 5 years that the quality has gone down. I don’t know if they are using frozen patties or what, but they just aren’t as good (or as large) as they used to be. I don’t know if the runzas have gone down either. Nowadays I go to Culvers for a fast food burger.

  7. Hmm, I was raised in Lincoln, but Runza got canned along with all the other fast food I stopped eating when I was 18. I guess I never saw it as something morally superior to McDonalds etc. As far as memory serves I would never go to Runza of my own volition, but was never too bummed if I had to go along and have one for lunch. Mike, I am surprised to hear you are not a Nebraskan, where are you from?

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