The Taco Joe Pizza at Happy Joe’s Pizza & Ice Cream

A taco pizza pie from Happy Joe's in Decorah, IA

Aaron Fenster / Heavy Table

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.

A slice of taco pizza from Happy Joe's in Decorah, IA

Aaron Fenster / Heavy Table

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.

The dining room at Happy Joe's in Decorah, IA

Aaron Fenster / Heavy Table

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15 Comments

  1. Growing up in Iowa I know all about Happy Joe’s and to this day I am still searching for a taco pizza that lives up to Happy Joe’s. I’ve run across one or two that have been good (while many have not been good at all) but none that have come close. I miss you Taco Joe!

  2. Pizza Ranch does a pretty solid taco pizza, IMO.

  3. I’m heading back to my home town in WI this weekend, and I made a date with my girlfriends back home for some of this madness on saturday! Funny timing of this article, since I havent eaten this in over 10 years.

  4. Jason Walker04/14/2011Reply

    Agreed, Carolyn. I always go for it on the Ranch buffet. Open now in Monticello and soon in Lakeville, too!
    Pizza Hut in my Kansas hometown had a taco pizza. They wouldn’t deliver it, I guess because the tomatoes would make it too soggy during a 45-minute delivery run, but it was the best. Thin crust only. At least I remember it being the best … as an 8-year-old, taco pizza is food nirvana.
    I think Godfather’s might have a taco pizza that’s pretty decent, too, if there are still any Godfather’s around.

  5. We had a Happy Joe’s in Sioux Falls when I was growing up and I loved that place. They had a little room with a window where you could watch your pizza being made and this awesome old-timey ice cream parlor in the front. They also had a vintage fire truck in the parking lot that kids could climb on. I don’t remember much about the quality of the pizza other than my 7-year-old self liked it, but what it may have lacked in taste, the surroundings more than made up for it. Sadly, it closed and is now a depressing pool hall/casino.

    Jason, Godfather’s does indeed make a very good taco pizza. We’d get it all the time in Sioux Falls. The only GF’s I know of in the Metro is Brooklyn Park, and I’m not even sure if they’re still open.

  6. Growing up in Iowa I loved Taco Pizza from Happy Joe’s. Nothing like the tradition of going to a high school football game and then off to get a taco pizza and an ice cream sundae. I have had had taco pizza at many restaurants since moving away from IA but nothing even comes close to Happy Joe’s.

  7. Godfather’s lives on in Golden Valley at Winnetka & 55 too.

  8. A must have when I’m home to the Quad Cities!!

  9. I played on the Sioux Falls Happy Joe’s softball team from 1977-1980, until I was 12. The Old Fashioned Garden Pizza was the best pizza I’d ever had. The owners retired sometime in the mid-80s, I think, and I wished I’d kept in touch with them.
    Happy Joe’s Taco Pizza was awesome, too, and the ice cream parlor was amazing. If you drank a giant ice cream soda (the pig) all by yourself, you got a pig poster and your name on the wall. There were a lot of names on the wall. It was a huge point of pride to drink a pig, and it is one of my regrets that I chickened out.
    Long live the memory of Happy Joe’s.

  10. Taco pizza sounds delicious.

  11. Happy Joe’s is pretty much an institution, every person from an Iowan town (with a population greater than 100) has been to a birthday party, school party, after-game meal (more than likely all three)at the Joe’s. Remember when some installed skee-ball machines?!?
    Taco pizza is wonderful, and each slice is like childhood in your mouth. BUT, their delicious Canadian Bacon pizza -which is most excellent in little, lovely square chunks, not pepperoni-like slices- is the reason I go back. I love you, Joe.

  12. I had a buddy from Iowa who raved about Happy Joes taco pizza, so one night we spontaneously road tripped to Iowa specifically for Happy Joes. All I can say is it was everything I hoped for and more! That was over 15 years ago, and I still tell people about that taco pizza. There is nothing in mpls. That compares. Leaning Tower used to have a pretty good one, but the last 2 times I tried it, it was terrible. GO Happy Joes!

  13. Don’t trust anyone who says taco pizza isn’t awesome.

    Man, haven’t been to a Happy Joe’s in years. I’m hungry.

  14. Having grown up in Iowa, I’ve definitely had the taco pizza from Happy Joes and it is awesome (they also make a great Canadian bacon pizza!). When that was no longer available in my area, I tured to Casey’s. Casey’s, a convenience store chain, has great taco pizza and there are locations in MN! Give it a try!

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