Crookston Eats: Happy Joe’s Pizza & Ice Cream a treasured Crookston tradition

Jess Bengtson
New Happy Joe's General Manager Sam Shafer poses in the restaurant after Wednesday's lunch rush

   Jess Bengtson's 19th stop on her alphabetical tour of Crookston eating establishments took her to Happy Joe’s Pizza & Ice Cream. Her series is featured every other Friday. 

    Happy Joe's Pizza & Ice Cream of Crookston is one of the city's most recognized "attractions" offered in the town of 8,000 people. Even former Crookstonites make sure to put Happy Joe's on their "must see" list when they come home from college, for reunions or especially plan birthday parties. This hot spot restaurant is home to the most famous of all pizzas...the Taco Pizza. Before we dive right in to the deliciousness that is Happy Joe's, let's check in with new manager Sam Shafer.

    Sam has been with HJ for six years and has now moved his way up to being the General Manager. He has some big ideas for the restaurant, plus a handful of new employees who applied after learning he was the new "boss man." One beloved employee who has returned after a brief hiatus is Mark Ecklund. Mark is said to have started at Happy Joe's when it first opened 36-37 years ago and couldn't be happier to return.

    When asked about anything new that might be happening soon, Shafer was excited to announce that Happy Joe's will be getting Crispy Thin pizzas. It's something new for the Crookston store next to the already favorite Hand Tossed and Deep Dish crusts that are available in all sizes - Little Joe to Large. He's also looking at changing some of the daily specials to be more appealing to the customer's needs/wants and possibly doing some "in-store only" specials for those that come into the restaurant. After their game room remodel this past summer, things couldn't be better for HJ. It's still one of the Crookston area's favorite birthday party destinations and, being one of the almost 50 Happy Joe's restaurants in the U.S., it never goes out of style.

    I asked Shafer what his favorite things to eat at the restaurant were and he said it was a tie between the Happy Joe's Special and the BLT pizza. For those who have never had it, the Happy Joe's Special pizza consists of canadian bacon, mozzarella cheese and sauerkraut. Now, any other time I would have shuddered at the thought of adding sauerkraut to anything but after recent food adventures, I was willing to give it a try some time.

    I decided to take to the buffet for my HJ food journey this week. You can't go wrong with the buffet when you can't really pinpoint what you want to eat, but might want to try a nice variety of food items. Plus, their buffet is now open for lunch Monday thru Saturday making it convenient for those who can't make it there during the week.

    Lucky for me, I found a table to sit at (which can get tricky some days) and immediately went up to the counter to grab a freshly-washed plate. On my first plate (yes, I said first), I added a slice of Taco Pizza, a small spoonful of Buffalo Chicken Bites, some Pepperoni Pasta and a Cheese Stick. Before I left the line, I added a layer of their homemade taco sauce on top of the Taco Pizza and a dab of ranch next to the Cheese Stick. Literally as I sat down, a table of University of Minnesota Crookston students had just finished with their first plates and were raving about how Happy Joe's had the best pizza, especially the Taco Pizza. It makes you feel good about the meal you are about to eat and the town you live in when you can hear other people around you talking about how great a place is.

    The Taco Pizza was as fantastic as I have ever remembered it. The taco chips were fresh and crunchy, the crust crispy, the meat and cheese playing well off each other and the homemade taco sauce bringing it all together. The unfortunate thing was that when I went back for a second slice, everyone else in the restaurant had devoured it. That will teach me for only taking one slice, huh?

    Next on the plate were the Buffalo Chicken Bites. Boy, they packed a punch. The tender bites were smothered in a spicy orange buffalo sauce that would tantalize any "foodie" who likes things hot. After a brief break and a drink of ice water, the Pepperoni Pasta must have said it was their turn. I'll start off by saying that when I got the spatula full from the warming tray, the cheese could have stretched for miles. If you find yourself among the stretchiest of cheeses, you know it's gonna taste good. The pasta was drowned in a savory marinara and weaved around slices of pepperoni. The stretchy cheese topped everything off to make this one of my new favorites.

    After a quick nibble on my Cheese Stick and Ranch, I went up for a second plate. Go ahead and judge all you want. When you like to get the most bang for your buck, you can't not go up for second plate at a buffet. No matter if you're full or not.

    On my second plate, I only put a slice of Pepperoni Pizza and a couple sticks of Cinnamon Dessert Pizza. As I sat down again, I overheard the same group of UMC guys talk about how people come back into Crookston just for Happy Joe's Pizza. I thought that was pretty cool and secretly hoped that after they graduate, they remember not only Happy Joe's but also how much the Crookston community enjoys having students here from all over the country and world.

    Okay, back to the food. I'm not sure if the pizza artists were making their pizzas to impress that day, but the amount of pepperonis on that slice of pizza and the crispness of them sure hit the spot. Plus, the sticks of Cinnamon Dessert Pizza never disappoint. If you've never had the delight of trying these, you should definitely put it on your next order. They are a light dough sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, heavily-drizzled with a sweet icing and cut into sticks. They're the perfect way to end your lunch or dinner at Happy Joe's or at home.

    As I walked out of the restaurant, I couldn't help but look around at all the hungry and satisfied faces. The UMC guys had gravitated to the game room for a quick round of "Sink It" before leaving and the employees were busy cleaning tables, and setting up for the next round of buffet junkies. I would say it was another successful food trip to another Crookston gem. Happy Joe's will forever be a treasured part of the community and hold a special place in our hearts and our stomachs.