One of the biggest surprises in moving to the West Coast was the near total lack of taco pizza. That was astonishing to me as taco pizza is an institution in the Midwest. You’ll find it on the menu of every pizza place from the one at the gas station, to the mom and pop restaurants, and even to national pizza chains that make a specialty taco pizza for their taco loving locals.
The one that was my favorite growing up was from Happy Joe’s. Happy Joe’s started in Bettendorf, Iowa. It was the go-to place for kids’ birthday parties at a time when Chuck E. Cheese was still just a twinkling in some animatronic rat’s eye. In celebration of Little Emmy Lou or Billy Joe Jr.’s big day, an employee would come out with a squeaky black horn. A siren would sound and the room would go quiet while the employee announced, “Emmy Lou is seven today! Let’s all join in to sing happy birthday!” A roomful of strangers would sing while Emmy Lou beamed. Afterwards, kids would steal pens from their mothers’ purses to fill out the word games on their paper placemats and chuckle over jokes printed on them that were sent in from kids all over the Midwest.
“Why did the man put his car in the oven? He wanted a hot rod.” (Can you imagine the hot pads that guy must own? They have to be huge.)
Then the kids would beg for quarters and run off to play in the arcade while parents talked over pitchers of pop and beer. My brothers needed to be told when the pizza had arrived because they were immersed in the game room; however, I was only too aware. My favorite spot at Happy Joe’s was the platform and window where you could watch the pizza being made. I’d gaze at the pizza makers, pulling and stretching the dough and then loading it with toppings. Then came the main event. With the platform as my stage I’d turn to face the unsuspecting audience and regale the customers with dances from my tap class or my own homemade choreographed show. I was 23. I’m kidding, I’m kidding. I was 5 or 6.
Once our pizza was ready, I’d run to the table, eager to eat my dinner… of chips. See, for a real tried and true taco pizza, you need crushed nacho flavored chips on top. Think of it as the pizza version of those noodle casseroles topped with crushed potato chips. The seventies were a marvelous time, weren’t they? I’d start picking chips from the top of the pizza, happily crunching away, until my mom would inevitably size up the situation and tell me, “Cadry. You can’t just eat the chips.” It was worth a shot. I’d settle in to a whole slice… with a few extra chips for good measure.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the state my someday-to-be husband was gobbling up taco pizza of his own. Apparently, one time his dad even forgot his brother there in the arcade. He came home with pizza for the family, and his mom said, “Did you forget anything?”
“No, I got the pizza,” his dad said.
“I mean your son. Happy Joe’s called.”
What did I tell you? That arcade was something of a Bermuda Triangle for preteen boys.
You can imagine my shock and disappointment when discovering that, in a similar fashion, on the West Coast taco pizza ceased to exist. (I found one place between LA and Phoenix that has it, and that’s it.) Happy Joe’s only made it as far as North Dakota and stopped. (Did they suppose a restaurant couldn’t hope for more than a city called Grand Forks? My sources say yes.) In my fantasies, I imagined opening a restaurant selling taco pizza, showing the Angelenos what they were missing out on…
And then 9 years into living there I met my sooner-to-be husband, and I discovered that he too had a deep well of love for taco pizza. That well was so deep, he actually had people in Iowa send him boxes of the taco flavored chips that were essential for the true taco pizza experience. He had discovered in his time in LA that a SoCal chain had a similar crust to Happy Joe’s, and so in our early dating days we’d order their pizza, and then add raw chopped onions, lettuce, and taco chips.
It may come as no surprise after all of this that when we announced our engagement to my family back in Iowa, we all met up at Happy Joe’s. In came an employee who honked her squeaky horn. (Yes, I know. We’re fancy.) My family members looked at each other confused. None of us were celebrating a birthday. Then she said, “We have a special announcement! Cadry and David are getting married!” The siren sounded, and there were hugs all around, and then I realized I should have pulled David from the Skeeball game first. (I kid, I kid. He’s terrible at Skeeball. He’s more of a Ms. Pac-Man guy.) In fact, I even gave taco pizza a shout out in my wedding vows.
Then we went vegan. And the taco pizza from Happy Joe’s with its dairy-based cheese, meat, and nacho chips were all put to the wayside. I started making a chickpea taco pizza on a Vicolo cornmeal crust. (You can check out the video here.) It was and is delicious, but the chips for topping were elusive. Nothing was quite right for the spicy, crunchy topping. We tried blue corn chips, and they were too hard. We tried seasoning our own tortilla chips, but the spice blend was never quite right and felt a little dusty in the mouth. Eventually we gave up and settled to the idea of a life of chipless taco pizza. Then, like a cilantro-fueled dream, Garden of Eatin’ came on the scene with their Pico de Gallo chips, and the chipful taco pizza was born again. The crunch, the seasoning, it’s all right on. (But very dangerous. Somehow those bags have a hard time staying full in our kitchen cupboards.)
This recipe is part of my continuing series on ways to use one component of a meal for several entrees. It utilizes spicy black beans and several cupboard and freezer staples. If you feel like making homemade marinara and crust, go for it. But we love this meal for something hearty, indulgent, fun and quick. It’s an occasional treat with a lot of sentimental value.
Plus, using some premade products and leftover spicy black beans means that the whole shebang, including baking time, is done and on the table in twenty minutes. You couldn’t drive to Happy Joe’s, park, order, and do a couple of tap numbers in that amount of time. The only thing missing? Those placemats with crosswords and corny jokes, but I’m working on that. I came up with this little beauty last week. Tell me if you think it’s up to snuff for a sheet of paper used to protect my table from splotches of pizza sauce…
“Why does the bird outside my window only sing the same one line to a song over and over? Early bird gets the ear worm!”
No? How about…
“What did the creamy cashew and garlic salad topping say to the refrigerator? Close the door! I’m dressing!”
All right. I’ll keep working on it.
Update: For a gluten-free crust idea, check out this post from Andrea at Cook Easy Vegan.