Photo courtesy of 13 Fronteras

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A large red emblem of three stars above two horizontal knives welcomes restaurant-goers to 13 Fronteras in the San Telmo neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Guests ask if it symbolizes revolution, or if it’s the number 13 using the Mayan numeral system, which employs a series of bars and dots. 

But the storefront insignia is actually a twist on the D.C. flag, which 13 Fronteras’ Chef Dave Soady also has tattooed on this arm.

The restaurant is named after the 13 frontiers Soady and his wife, Cristabel, crossed after leaving the U.S. on their intercontinental journey. (Technically, they only passed through 12 countries, but had to cross the Mexican border twice because the first time around, the border patrol agents were so busy inspecting their camper that they forgot to stamp their passports.)

In 2014, Dave, a D.C.-area native, and Cris, along with their two Shih Tzus, Willie and Teppo, packed up their belongings—mostly kitchen utensils—squeezing them Tetris-style into a red camper and drove south from D.C. to a yet-to-be-determined destination.

“You guys shouldn’t do this,” Dave says a Border Patrol agent warned them when they hit Eagle Pass, Texas, heading into Mexico. “The cartel shot up a family in a station wagon last week. Basically, you’re done.” They forged ahead anyway.

After Guatemala, they hit El Salvador, and stayed in Cris’ rural hometown, Cojutepeque, for seven months as they searched for jobs farther south. They set their sights on Argentina after falling in love with its wild, untouched landscapes during a 2011 road trip. Dave likens it to going back in time. 

“Strip malls and cookie cutter houses are the things I hate the most, and when I think about Argentina, that’s not part of the deck of cards,” he says. So when they stumbled upon an ad calling for a couple—a chef and an administrator—to run Estancia La Margarita, a rural retreat 200 miles south of Buenos Aires, they grabbed the opportunity.

They packed their bags once more and drove through Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, finally hitting the Darién Gap, which interrupts the Pan-American Highway. From there, they shipped their car to Cartagena, Colombia, put their stuff on a cargo plane, and flew south to meet it. As they waited for their car, they stumbled into a family’s living room while admiring the artwork that hung there, mistaking it for a museum. When the artist found two strangers in her home, she invited them to stay for dinner.

“It was incredible,” Cris says. “It’s one of those experiences that only happen when you are getting to know other places and find people who are willing to open up their homes and their hearts without even knowing you.”

After Colombia, they drove through Ecuador and Peru, hitting up stalls of fresh seafood in the fishing villages, and crossed Chile, experiencing mirages in the Atacama Desert. Two days after passing through snow-covered mountains into Argentina, a houseful of guests were expecting their new hosts at the ranch.

At Estancia La Margarita, Dave cooked three daily meals for up to 25 guests at a time using ingredients from the farm—anything from wild fruits and nuts to the cows, pigs, and sheep he would vaccinate, castrate, and slaughter. Cris arranged activities for guests such as horseback riding or flamenco dancing. “It was really farm to table,” Cris says, laughing.  

A year and a half later, a new owner took over and let everyone go. Cris and Dave decided to start over in Buenos Aires. They had yet to establish residency, which meant they couldn’t get paid for their work. At the estancia, Dave explains, there were no inspectors—the nearest town was 10 miles away.

To hone his skills, Dave apprenticed at Aramburu, an award-winning, tasting-menu restaurant. Eventually, he landed a paying job at a hotel restaurant called Anselmo, where he was able to build some name recognition. When Cris got a job as a translator, the pair had enough money to open their own restaurant. In June 2017, as he was heading home from a run, Dave knocked on the door of what would become 13 Fronteras. Two months later, he signed the lease.

In creating the menu for his first official restaurant, Dave drew inspiration from the ingredients and recipes he encountered in his cross-continental journey. The Argentine chorizo is made from wild boar and served with figs, sauerkraut, and plantains. The Mexican mole is slathered on a rabbit leg paired with mashed fermented beans. The brined pork belly embodies Dave’s first bite when they crossed into Ecuador and comes with kimchi inspired by the Ecuadorian chef who passed onto Dave his love for pickling and fermenting.

Then there’s the Exótico Argentino—a special that rotates weekly. Like the rest of the dishes on the menu, Dave prepares Argentine ingredients using globally inspired techniques. One week, it was frog ravioli. Another, tempura-fried crocodile meatballs drizzled with hot sauce.

“Argentina is known for its meat, but that’s just a small, small, small sample of what’s good here,” Dave explains. “You wanna talk about good? Let’s talk about goat. Let’s talk about pig. Let’s talk about vegetables. There’s a lot of good stuff here that’s not mainstream.”

Dave is now exploring edible bugs. Metamorphosis, their last tasting menu, featured silkworm larvae, pupae, and eggs on edible wood. He’s now in conversation with a grasshopper purveyor.

“I call [insects] a back-to-the-future ingredient,” Dave says. “It’s something that people ate in pre-Columbian society and people are going to have to eat more of in the near future.”

Each of Dave’s flavor fusions is a trip of its own, and he’s eager to tell diners what, exactly, they just bit into and the story behind it. He modeled the restaurant after Peter’s Carryout, the Bethesda diner where he learned to cook the summer after high school.

“So it worked!” says Peter’s owner Ned Saah upon hearing the way Dave interacts with his customers across the bar. “That engagement was part of his lesson. That’s why they keep coming back. I always told him, just have fun.”

And they really do keep coming back. Most of Dave’s clientele are neighborhood locals eager to try his latest creation. One regular customer feels so comfortable in the space that she frequently dines in her pajamas. 

Cris never imagined the man she met 14 years ago, who grew up watching football and drinking Miller Lite, would end up cooking insects in Argentina. The couple first met when Dave was assigned to train Cris when she started working at Potomac Valley Brick, a Rockville-based building materials supplier. They spent the majority of their eight-hour shifts talking, and quickly began dating.

In 2007, Dave required ankle surgery to relieve his severe arthritis. Recovery took almost two years. As he recuperated, Cris pushed him to follow his dream. That’s how Dave came to train under former White House Chef Patrice Olivon at L’Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda.

“I could see that he was excited to go in the evenings to culinary school,” Cris says. “It was a big change, even when we were working. Because when you see someone that isn’t happy…” she trails off. “That’s why I asked him, ‘What do you want to do?’”

After graduation, he stayed on at the culinary school as an assistant for two years before Chef Chris Nye hired him as a sous chef at Rustico in Alexandria. Nye was hesitant to hire someone with so little experience. “But something kind of struck me about Dave,” he says. “Most people don’t know what they want in this industry or even what their short term goals are. He was really confident in the way he knew what he wanted. And one of his goals was to go with his wife and cook in Latin America.”

“This is the starting point, you know,” Dave explains, motioning to the restaurant. “Shortly after we opened [Cris] said, ‘We did it, OK, what’s next?’” 

“Once you begin to travel and explore the world you want to continue,” Cris explains. “We would like to open another restaurant in a more remote location, somewhere in the Andes, Patagonia, or who knows… Perhaps we’ll open a restaurant in a place nestled somewhere where the journey alone will be an adventure for diners to get to.” 

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to lhayes@washingtoncitypaper.com.