When people talk about Indigenous foods in the United States, fry bread often surfaces. After the U.S. government forced tribal members from their ancestral land and onto reservations, the displaced Navajo, also known as the Diné, invented fry bread, a fried dough made from things like flour and powdered milk. Out of necessity, the dish used ingredients from the meager and often rancid rations dispersed by the U.S. government. Fry bread eventually became a staple within several Indigenous populations throughout the United States, often adapted into a taco-like dish with fillings like ground beef, onion, lettuce, cheddar, and chiles.
Chef Alexa Numkena-Anderson — who has familial ties to the Hopi, Cree, Yakama, and Skokomish tribes — grew up eating fry bread with her grandmother, devouring it in taco form at fundraisers and powwows. “Even though it has a very sad history, we took it back and made it a comforting thing,” she says. “It’s something I make when I’m feeling homesick, when I really miss my grandma.”
When Numkena-Anderson moved to Portland, which occupies ancestral Multnomah, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Chinook, Tualatin Kalapuya, and Molalla land, she found herself struggling to connect with other Indigenous people. Now, almost 10 years later, she has started her own pop-up, Javelina, celebrating the eclectic cuisine of Indigenous populations throughout the Americas — both in terms of first foods, and the foods of contemporary Native communities throughout the country. The chef hosted her first Javelina pop-up this month at Northeast Portland restaurant Morchella, serving dishes she grew up with as well as dishes beloved by her husband, who grew up in the Southwest. The initial menu included her grandmother’s potato soup, first foods like squash and huckleberries, Sonoran hot dogs, and fry bread burgers and tacos.
“I’ve wanted to make food of my culture, because it’s not really present,” she says. “Especially being in Portland, there’s an Urban Native population, but you don’t see it, you don’t hear about it very much, and I’m a part of it. So I wanted to represent my own people.”
Numkena-Anderson first started cooking for her siblings, as the oldest of seven. When she turned 18, she started working as a food runner for Northern Quest Resort & Casino in Airway Heights, Washington; she began cooking in the restaurant as a bluff. “The kitchen there, they took me under their wing, taught me things through the window,” she says. “I was talking smack, saying, ‘Yeah, I can hop on the line!’ So the chef called me on it, and I put on the chef’s jacket.” She ended up working a full shift; by the end, she fell in love.
Soon afterward, Numkena-Anderson bounced through several Portland restaurants, including Vitaly Paley spots Headwaters and Imperial. She was on the opening team at Bullard, and worked as a sous chef at Radio Room. She spent the most time in the kitchen at Sammich, working side-by-side with owner Mel McMillan. “[Alexa] is a fucking stud,” McMillan says. “Portland would be so lucky to be able eat her food.”
While on parental leave — Numkena-Anderson had her first child in September 2023 — she and her husband, Nicholas, started to build a plan to make that happen. The couple had bounced around restaurant and pop-up ideas for years; all the while, Alexa has spent time digging into Indigenous foods, inspired by people like Sean Sherman of the Sioux Chef. “I was like, ‘Wow, okay, look at these Native people here doing this kind of food, I haven’t encountered people doing this in the industry,’” she says. “We deserve a platform as much as any other culture.”
As opposed to focusing on fine dining and strictly pre-colonization foods, the Numkena-Andersons celebrate the comfort foods born out of contemporary Indigenous populations, as well as the larger facets of their childhoods. It’s partly the reason the chef included her grandmother’s potato soup on the initial menu. “It’s not an expensive thing to make,” she says. “I look back at the time thinking about how we didn’t have much money. The potato soup sold out really fast, which felt nice to me.”
The Sonoran hot dog is a nod to Nicholas’s Arizona upbringing, as well as Alexa’s father, who is Mexican, and her own Hopi heritage. The bacon-wrapped hot dog comes with pico de gallo, chipotle lime mayo, mustard, pinto beans, cilantro, grilled onions, and cotija, all tucked inside a bolillo bun. At future pop-ups, she hopes to incorporate more Mexican dishes, things like sopa de fideo or tamales.
Other dishes pull more directly from pre-colonial or first foods, particularly those grown by Indigenous people. The squash she served at her last pop-up, stuffed with house-made chorizo and pickled huckleberries, came from x̌ast sq̓it, or Good Rain Farm, founded by Sinixt founder Michelle Week. For each new menu, Numkena-Anderson wants to include more details about specific Indigenous foods. Javelina’s first menu had information about the history of fry bread, but, in the future, she wants to explore things like Chinook salmon or indigenous produce. “There isn’t much food education that happens for a lot of the reservations ... I really had to seek it out,” she says. “And I’m still reading and learning about other tribes and their foods.”
Of course, she serves her family’s take on fry bread at her pop-ups — as the foundation for a burger with American cheese and grilled onions, and as a taco, topped with beef chili, tomatoes, lettuce, sour cream, and cheddar cheese. Even though she’s only hosted one pop-up, she already feels like she’s beginning to achieve her goal: connecting with other Indigenous people in her community. At her recent pop-up, a few Diné visitors praised her fry bread. “That’s a big compliment to hear from another Native person,” she says.
“The hard thing about being a City Native or an Urban Native: You don’t find many of your people; it makes you feel kind of lonely,” she says. “This is my way of saying, ‘Hey, I’m over here, I’d love for you to be part of this as well.’”
Javelina’s next pop-up will be held from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, November 19, at Morchella, 1315 NE Fremont Street.