Baby, we were born to runza - revisiting a Nebraska favorite
October 24th, 2012
03:45 PM ET
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Food in the Field gives a sneak peek into what CNN's team is eating, and the food culture they encounter as they travel the globe. Today's contributor is CNN photojournalist Ken Tuohey.

I was just 10 years old when my dad was accepted to the University of Nebraska to complete his Masters degree. I didn’t want to leave the sunny beaches of Southern California, but as a kid, moving halfway across the country sounded exciting. I know better now.

I vividly remember driving through the seemingly endless cornfields, wading thru the city streets with snow up to my waist as we walked to an evening matinee and the fanatical “Big Red” fans who made the town of Lincoln look as if the apocalypse had whenever a football game was in town.

And there was one other thing: the runza.

It’s a delicious hot pastry, filled with ground beef, onions, and cabbage, and was brought by German-Russian immigrants to the United States. It’s a close cousin to the Kansas favorite, the bierock, and it’s m-m-mmm good.

I loved eating runzas at the eponymous Runza restaurant. We were on a pretty tight budget in those days, since both of my parents were attending college and working full time. We didn’t get to eat out very often, but when we did, it was a pretty big deal. We tried different places all the time, and eventually stumbled across the runza, which quickly became a family favorite.

My childhood memories of this savory predecessor to the Hot Pocket were fond ones indeed, though at the time I really wasn’t even sure of what was in it. That never stopped me from wolfing them down, three at a time. All I knew was that I loved them, and every time I got the chance to select the restaurant, I picked the Runza.

The two years in Lincoln flew and the days of the runzafests were over. My dad graduated and was offered a position as a college professor in California. I hadn’t had a runza since - until recently.

Now as an adult, I work for CNN as a photojournalist. I get to travel all over the country covering a variety of news stories, yet somehow none of them in Nebraska… until now. I was recently assigned to cover Vice President Biden campaigning in Council Bluffs, Iowa which is just a stone’s throw from Omaha, Nebraska. I’d gone 40 years without a Runza and this was an opportunity I wasn’t going to miss.

The first thing I had to do was see if they were still in business, and if so, how close would it be to where I was staying. I punched it into GPS and one came up just a few short miles from the airport. I saved the destination.

After a few of days of shooting, I headed back to Omaha for my flight home and the long-awaited runza reunion. As I pulled up to the restaurant, I started to wonder if runzas could really taste as good as I remembered. Sometimes things change as we grow up, especially our tastes. I used to hate fish, now I love it. The same goes for vegetables. Was I in for a disappointment? There was only one way to find out.

I stepped out of my car and the scent emanating from inside made my stomach growl with anticipation. I hoped the taste would live up to it. I stepped up to the window and ordered a plain runza; there are now many varieties to choose from.

Moments later they called my number and I unwrapped the piping hot, meat-stuffed pastry and took a bite. The moment of truth was here. Was the runza all I had built it up to be?

I’m happy to report that it was even better than I remembered. It was fresh, hot, and delicious and I could easily imagine getting hooked again. I closed my eyes and took another bite. It was just like stepping back into 1973.

I have plenty of fond memories from my childhood, some of which I’ll probably never get to relive again - playing with lawn darts or rapidly banging click-clacks together - but that’s okay with me. If I ever feel like I need a blast from the past, I know where to find a runza.

If Nebraska is not your travel plans, make one at home. And while you're at it, please feel free to wax rhapsodic about your favorite local delicacy in the comments below.

Previously in regional sandwiches: cheesesteaks, loose meat, po' boys, snoot sandwiches, beef on weck, Jersey Shore subs and muffulettas

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Filed under: 100 Places to Eat • America • Food in the Field • Hungry for Home • Nebraska • Regional Sandwiches • Sandwiches • Think • Travel

soundoff (87 Responses)
  1. NE Transplant

    We grew up on Runzas in Omaha in the 70's. Our dad did most of the cooking and being from a German family, he made the best home-made runzas. I didn't eat at a Runza Hut until my late teen years. Honestly, the home-made ones are better. We now live in the Kansas City area and my kids love runzas too! We make them from scratch – freeze a bunch and eat them all winter. Our Halloween tradition is to scarf down a runza and then go trick-or-treating! Can't wait for Wednesday.

    October 29, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  2. Joscar

    I am too young to remember the original restaurant but I do remmeber the commercials from the 70's and 80's, they were for Runza Hut and Runza Drive-Ins.
    I've been away from Nebraska for 8 years now and the last several times back I've been dissapointed in the quality of the sandwich. Didn't seem to have as much filling and it was definately smaller, still good but not great. The thick cut onion rings with the dipping sauce are still tops.

    October 29, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  3. Gross

    Runza is nasty. I live in Overland Park, KS and no one goes there. I can't believe they haven't closed it yet.

    October 29, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  4. Marni

    The Runza's are great, but they also have the best burgers in fast food. One of many great Nebraska traditions....Runzas, Valentinos pizza, chili and cinnamon rolls (yes, together).

    October 29, 2012 at 8:01 am |
  5. Leo

    As a Lincoln native, I disliked runzas because of the onions and cabbage. The new varieties are helpful; I haven't been back home for a couple years though. I think the burgers and fries at Runza are the best! Now, in San Diego, our Husker bar started making home-made runzas for us, a beef-cabbage or a chicken bacon, for football game days. Delicious!

    October 29, 2012 at 1:00 am |
  6. Maya Ravensong

    Interesting to note that you were in Council Bluffs, where right on the main road- Broadway- there is a Runza.

    October 29, 2012 at 12:02 am |
  7. DaddyMac

    Runza'a are named correctly, you pay for it after you eat them. It is something you have to grow up with. I was born in Omaha and a lifelong Husker fan but no more Runza's for me, enjoy them all you want!

    October 28, 2012 at 9:33 pm |
  8. Texan

    Can't believe a story on Runza's!! As a Nebraska native, I worked at Runza Drive-ins while attending UNL back in the early 80's. My Mom has been making Runza's since I was a kid – and everytime I go home I beg Mom to make her Runza's. After living in Texas for 25 years, I sooo miss Runza's and Valentino's Pizza. It's surprising to me that they haven't expanded into other states – especially down here in Texas, think they'd be a big hit. The burgers and frings at Runza's restaurants are also excellent. Go Big Red!

    October 28, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  9. Gil Neumann

    Oh how we miss them! My mouth is watering just remembering the smell of Runzas in the stands as the Huskers savaged their opponents. They stayed warm long enough to bring them with, and Runza Hut is the first place we went upon arriving in Omaha. We have friends there, and in Beatrice, and always find time for a runza when visiting. I was introduced to them as Bieroks, the German version. In Russion they are Pirogys, and the Russian version is the most like Bieroks (in German the "B" is pronouced like a "P" as in "Bretzyl (Pretzel)." Wow! What memories!

    October 28, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  10. Miss Read

    I think everyone is missing the best part of this article, "fanatical “Big Red” fans who made the town of Lincoln look as if the apocalypse had whenever a football game was in town.". I LOVE THIS QUOTE. I've been living in Omaha for a year now and I absolutly love it. However the fanaticism that is the huskers has been a little overwhelming for me and I'm not sure I will ever wrap my head around it.

    October 28, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • Dave

      Join us or be destroyed.

      October 28, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
  11. freshnewblog

    I like sandwich b l o g s.

    October 28, 2012 at 11:04 am |
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