The Taco Joe Pizza at Happy Joe’s Pizza & Ice Cream
Imagine a mad food scientist in her laboratory, about to unleash her latest creation unto an innocent world. “Ladies and gentlemen of the Beard Foundation, behold!” she cries as she pulls off the curtain, “My hideous culinary chimera: half taco, half pizza!” The beast clutches the bars of its cage and bellows sadly. Will it ever belong anywhere?
Is taco pizza an abomination? As a bastardization of both of its main elements, it is equally reviled by taco aficionados and pizza snobs alike. If you’re looking for lengua or bufala mozzarella, this is definitely not going to be your thing. On the other hand, one could also consider this a uniquely Iowan take on fusion cuisine; frankly, the concept is way more interesting and earnest than those “Asian” chicken salads with fried wonton skins that one sees everywhere.
Though taco pizza is widely available in the frozen foods sections of most Midwestern grocery stores, we went looking for the real deal at the Decorah, IA, outpost of Happy Joe’s. (Surprisingly, these pizzas are nowhere to be found at combination Pizza Hut / Taco Bells.) The Iowa-based chain of pizza-and-ice cream restaurants is just so gosh-darned cute, from the logo, which features a totally ragtime illustration of the founder, with multiple chins and all, to the photos of hysterical children that grace their dessert menu.
At Joe’s, which is arguably the origin of the dish, they call it the Taco Joe ($18 for a medium). It begins, as all things should, with a normal cheese pizza base. They top it with taco meat, sausage, and refried beans; once it comes out of the oven, it gets a layer of shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes, and “taco” chips. Most importantly, you also receive a generous amount of taco sauce packets to go with it. Hot sauce fiends should keep in mind that “mild” is the modus operandi here. For an additional charge, one may order it “Supreme”-style, with sour cream, onions, and olives added to the mix. Definitely go for that if you have a death wish.
Regulars tend to have a “been there, done that” attitude toward the Taco Joe, opting instead for the classier sauerkraut-and-Canadian bacon pizza. However, we saw that it maintained its place of honor at the children’s birthday party that occurred during our visit. There is something inherently childlike in the dish’s execution: It looks as if someone just crumbled a six-pack of hard-shelled beef tacos over a cheese pizza. That kind of straightforwardness may speak to its appeal to Iowans in particular. When pressed on the matter, a fed-up acquaintance said, “It’s a taco on a pizza! Deal with it!”
The best part of the pizza is its texture. Its flavors are clearly layered and segregated: You start with the vinegary pop of the taco sauce, crunch downward through the chips, rush past the cold lettuce, and settle into a savory mass of meat and cheese. But then, after the first, second, or third slice, regret starts creeping in. One begins to feel like Dante traveling through the nine circles of Hell. And it dawns on you that perhaps it isn’t Satan that you’ll find at the center of Hell, chewing on the souls of traitors — instead, it’s you, gnawing on a taco pizza.