NEW ULM, Minn. (WCCO) — Green bean, tuna, tater tot — it’s a Minnesota tradition. And don’t call it casserole. This is hotdish, one word.
In the land of 10,000 lakes, there are at least as many hotdish recipes. In fact, many viewers submitted their own. And that’s just how this week’s winner created their famous hotdish.
“The first owner was having a hard time bringing older adults in. Our fix was broasted chicken. He came up to this lady that was working and said ‘What can we do with the leftover chicken and tater tots? Let’s come up with something. That’s how the hotdish was created,” Lee Sturm, owner of Happy Joe’s in New Ulm, said. “Joe started this company in 1972 out of Davenport, Iowa. This store in New Ulm opened in 1979,” Sturm said.
Sturm has worked at Happy Joe’s since the very beginning.
“I’ve been here since I was 16, 37 years I’ve been doing this. It was my first high school job, and I’m still here,” Sturm said. “I’ve had other jobs, but I always stayed here. I worked part time when I had other full time jobs. But I was always here and enjoyed it.”
Then in 1998, Sturm stepped up and bought the place.
“I was scared nervous to buy it, but everything went well,” Sturm said. “The guy before me owned it for 14 years. He was like the New Ulm icon. It was hard to fill his shoes, but we did.”
The restaurant is always packed, whether diners are going through the lunch buffet or sitting down for a slice.
“We’re known actually for our taco pizza,” Sturm said. “You may be wondering how a pizza joint is also home to the best hotdish. We’re the only Happy Joe’s that has that hotdish, though. It’s a New Ulm thing.
That’s just how they do it here. It’s a fan favorite, and it’s pretty basic, just like a hotdish should be.
“Tater tots, chicken, cream of mushroom soup and cheese,” Sturm said. “People have tried to make it at home and say they can’t quite get it. It’s not the same. And I’m not going to leave the secrets to what we do.”
Happy Joe’s hotdish looks just like the kind grandma used to make. And it tastes just like it, too.
“It’s been a huge tradition, especially this time of year in the deep cold. We’ll go through six, seven dishes on our buffet. It’s a warm comfort food is what it is,” Sturm said.
The lunch buffet is everyday over the noon hours and costs $9. And if you don’t want to leave the house, Happy Joe’s will deliver, too. Your other favorite spots for hotdish are Black Forest Inn in Minneapolis, Haute Dish in Minneapolis and The Mason Jar in Eagan.