It’s almost impossible to find an authentic Midwestern runza in the area, but the pirozhki from Rus Uz in Arlington are a delicious, if not exact, substitute.
“They were a special treat, mostly because each batch required my working mom, Kay Billingsley, to prepare, rest and roll out the dough. It was a labor-intensive process: She had to roll out the dough into thin sheets, cut the sheets into squares, spoon each square with a beef filling, seal the pockets and then bake them,” he said of the meticulousness required to fulfill his snacking needs.
While his family later ventured into new baking territory — “My sister, Deborah Kellogg, later adapted the recipe and stuffed runzas with all sorts of fillings,” he recalled — it dawned on Carman that this particular gift had passed him by.
“I used to ‘help’ by adding the filling and sealing up the pockets. My runzas always looked like the dog had taken a bite out of them,” he related.
Carman has remained effectively runza-less since moving eastward — save for an unsatisfactory run-in on Capitol Hill.
“I had one a few years back at a D.C. bar, where former Nebraskans gathered to watch Cornhusker football games. But they were sad imitations,” Carman bemoaned.
Lost in Translation
Running down Carman’s dream food turned out to be more challenging than most, largely because no one around here had any idea what I was talking about.
Turns out, the Germanic origin story he’d been fed as a youth was news to local vendors.
“Sorry to say, never had one and have never had any requests,” the proprietor of the German Gourmet (5838 Columbia Pike, Falls Church, Va.) reported back about the mystery meat pie.
“I have actually never had or heard of these,” Heidelberg Pastry Shoppe (2150 N. Culpeper St., Arlington, Va.) co-owner Carla Buchler admitted. “It sounds really good though; maybe we should try making them.”
And so it went, awkward rejection after awkward rejection.
Until I finally found someone who was able to set me straight.
“I have never heard the terms ‘runza’ and ‘bierock’ which you mentioned in your message,” Barbara Wiegel, a spokeswoman for the German Embassy in Washington, D.C., shot back in an email.
She went on to dispel the myth that Carman’s craving was born anywhere other than Sally Everett’s imagination.
“This is not a typical German snack food; typical German sandwiches are more similar to the US variety, consisting of bread slices and/or rolls that are layered with butter, meats (cold cuts), vegetables, cheese etc.,” she asserted.
Wiegel, who said she lived in Russia for more than 10 years, suggested that runza might have more in common with pirozhki.
“There are lots of varieties, not only savory pastries but also sweet ones filled with jam and/or cottage cheese,” she said of the accommodating finger food.
Sitting, Waiting, Wishing
With fresh marching orders in mind, I turned my heels towards Rus Uz (1000 N. Randolph St., Arlington, Va.), a neighborhood spot specializing in Russia-Uzbek cooking.
They, of course, serve pirozhki. But after reviewing the menu, I opted to hedge my bets by sampling fellow meat-filled delights, samsa (stuffed bread) and chebureki (deep-fried pastry pocket). Each appetizer had its finer points: wonderfully flaky shell gave way to mounds of zesty cabbage. Samsa sported a firmer crust shielding forkfuls of seasoned lamb. Chebureki packed a fabulous crunch.