The origins of this Cornhusker State fast food favorite are not entirely clear, but the runza's supremacy is undeniable.
If you are trying to imagine the runza, the humble pocket sandwich descended from generations of Nebraska immigrants, now so beloved in the state that it spawned a fast food restaurant chain of the same name, it helps to think of that old world staple, the pirozhki, or pierogi. Meat and cabbage, concealed in a sleeve of dough, then cooked. Even easier, you could just go ahead and imagine a hot pocket. As long as you promise to also imagine one of the best-tasting hot pockets you've ever had.
So, you're not quite there, yet—but you're pretty darned close. Baked, stuffed and sold statewide, most visibly at the Runza chain of restaurants, this simple, grab-and-go meal is as Nebraska as Cornhusker football. (Thousands are sold, incidentally, on game days at Lincoln's Memorial Stadium.) Kind of a big deal nowadays, the runza's origins are remarkably humble, traced back to the immigrant families that came from Central and Eastern Europe to settle on the Great Plains.
Just as American pizza, tacos—or those kolaches that Texans crave—at times bear only a passing resemblance to what you'll find in various motherlands, the pirozhki/pierogi went through a series of transformations before becoming that thing Nebraskans love to eat today. In some parts of the Midwest, it became known as the bierock, because of the way the word was spoken. (Various East Coasters who grew up with apizz, rather than pizza, will totally get this.)
Somehow, some way, in Nebraska, the bierock became the runza. Sauteed ground beef and cabbage went into a rectangular, bread roll-like creation, was served to people who thought they really tasted good, and the rest is delicious history.
Well, not really—while the runza would easily have survived for a generation or three, its continued fame was quite likely assured by the success of the Runza restaurants, now so closely tied in with the runza itself that nobody appears to have blinked when the chain trademarked the name. The first Runza location opened back in the 1940s, shortly after World War II, as a humble drive-in in Lincoln. Over time, it has grown to roughly 85 locations, all except five of them within the state of Nebraska. (That's roughly one Runza location for every 20,000 Nebraskans, while we're doing numbers.)
The Runza menu has expanded over the years to include tasting things like chili, and cinnamon rolls, but at the restaurant's core remains the original, beef and cabbage number—a simple, yet surprisingly craveable throwback, prepared from scratch at each store, every day. If you travel to Nebraska and don't go for at least one, maybe go ahead and save yourself the trouble— tell everyone you tried it anyway.