When Bill and I travel, we like to taste the food that is native to the state or region where we are traveling. For this reason, a few years ago as we made our way across Iowa to Chicago via the seemingly endless I-80 corridor, we elected to stop for lunch at a Maid-Rite to try the so-called Loose Meat Sandwich. In Iowa, Loose Meat Sandwich = Maid-Rite.
I was eager to try it, having heard stories about its deliciousness from friends who had grown up in Iowa, where loose meat is king. And, of course, in the sitcom Roseanne, which takes place in Iowa, Roseanne opens up a café featuring loose meat sandwiches. If there is a sitcom featuring loose meat sandwiches, and several trustworthy Iowa natives recommend it so highly, it must be good, right?
Now, I recognize that tastes vary, but I found my sandwich to be not even remotely good. In fact, it was darn right bland. Steamed and unseasoned ground beef on a bun. Adding ketchup, mustard, and pickles didn’t even seem to help. It made me nostalgic for s sloppy joe, with its spicy tomato sauce.
The next time we drove to Chicago, I asked Bill to stop again. We must have done something wrong, or just stopped on a bad day. So we again ordered the loose meat sandwich, this time adding cheese. Nope. Still didn’t taste good to me.
Don’t hate me, Iowa.
But eating Maid-Rite made me begin to think about runzas – Nebraska’s version of a loose meat sandwich. I grew up eating runzas – Mom didn’t make them, but Nebraskans love runzas so much that there is actually a fast food chain – Runza Hut – that offers the Nebraska ground beef sandwich. I ate there often, especially during my two years of college at the University of Nebraska.
Similar to a Maid-Rite, runzas add cabbage and onion, and brown the beef instead of steam it. And instead of serving it on a bun, it is completely wrapped in bread dough, which you bite into, releasing the steam from the hot sandwich.
So on another trip to Chicago, again zooming down I-80, we stopped in North Platte at the Runza Hut. I was excited to have Bill try a runza, proud to be able to introduce him to the Nebraska treat.
It shames me to tell you that I was so disappointed at what I recalled being a flavorful sandwich actually being lukewarm and bland – only slightly more flavorful than Maid-Rite – sandwich.
Don’t hate me, Nebraska. Perhaps it’s just me.
All this is to say that, for reasons I will not try to understand, I woke up yesterday morning suddenly hungry for a runza. A homemade runza, which would undoubtedly be better than the version from a fast food restaurant, no matter the name.
But in order to give me the greatest chance of success at making a flavorful sandwich, I called in the Big Guns.
My sister Jen.
There is no one like Jen more able to taste something and come up with an idea on how to replicate it, or, more often, make it better.
I called her at work.
“Hi Jen. I know you’re busy trying to earn a living as a single person who owns two homes and is a sole provider,” I said, “but I need you to focus on me, me, me.”
To her credit, she put her boss on hold to tend to my needs – that being a way to make a runza more flavorful.
“Add some ranch seasoning to the ground beef,” she said. “And let me get back to work so I can make my mortgage payments.”
When she retires, she will write a real cooking blog, not a fake one like mine, which rarely includes recipes since I’m only an average cook.
I adapted my recipe from the basic Runza recipe on the Rhodes Bread Dough website since I wasn’t willing to take the time to make homemade bread. Perhaps next time I will bring my pink Kitchen Aid mixer inside and make fresh homemade bread. And of course I added half a packet of ranch dressing seasoning and garlic, because garlic makes everything better.
It was delicious. There is no place like Nebraska.
And just to play fair, here is a link to a purported Maid-Rite copycat recipe….