The first thing one notices about Sur, which announces itself with a hand-carved sign perched atop the front door, is how easy it is to miss. The second is the handsome interior. Enter the compact space inside and it spills over with charm, beginning with more handmade wooden signs to the numerous tea kettles, silver jugs and inspirational signs (all gifts from regulars) to the inviting bar made from treated planks of cedar and a large concrete slab. There are various nostalgic items — an old foosball table brought from Argentina, for example, along with an antique step stool chair, bearing its history in several layers of chipped paint, strategically spaced around an inviting communal table running the width of almost the entire interior of Sur. Old, caged light fixtures, salvaged by co-owner Daniel Alonso, add to the appeal of the space.
“He revives and builds everything,” says Vanesa Suhr, co-owner with her husband and mastermind behind the empanadas, which serve as the genesis to the restaurant’s success.
Argentina has a cultural fixation with the popular hand-held treat, which in this country is typically baked and filled with variations of shredded or minced meat (after all, this is a country that prides itself with its beef). There are other standard favorites, like ham and cheese or shredded chicken in a creamy béchamel sauce, as well as variations within each of the country’s 24 provinces. What makes Sur such a magnet for those seeking the flavors of home is its loyalty to tradition balanced by Suhr’s creative edge.
She proudly shows off Alonso’s work, which ranges from the wooden boards that serve as plates to cable spools repurposed as tables for the expansive patio out back. Next door, a two-story building houses a workshop where Alonso gives forgotten objects a new life.
The couple moved to Miami from Buenos Aires in 2001. Alonso, who has a keen eye for real estate among other talents (he’s also certified nutritionist) purchased the property on a gut feeling that the neighborhood, which was a forgotten patch of Miami in Little Haiti, would soon turn around. His feeling paid off.
“Honestly, the last five years there’s been an incredible change. Nobody passed by here before. It wasn’t that it was dangerous, it’s just that people didn’t have reason to come,” Alonso says. “Then Wynwood started becoming what it started becoming and pushed people to come here,” he says, referring to the transformation of a neglected, middle class neighborhood into the thriving tourist attraction it is today.
While the burgeoning of the Wynwood Art District, which runs along the same Second Avenue, brought more traffic through and began transforming the Little Haiti neighborhood Sur is in, the empanada and sandwich restaurant still mainly relies on customers finding them through Instagram and word-of-mouth.
“We always know when it’s someone’s first time here because the two of us are always here. We know everyone by name. That’s what this place is like — it’s like a club,” Suhr offers with a bright smile. She adds that the intimacy of the space is just as important as the quality of the food.
Suhr was raised with a love for cooking. When she was ten, she purchased a box of baking powder that came with a recipe book that included a recipe for scones. That became her first solo baking project. And from there she was hooked, making it a habit to bake something for her parents while they took their afternoon siesta and serving it to them to enjoy with their maté — a hot tea favored in Argentina.
That translation of cooking as a form of expressing love is prevalent in each dish she makes at Sur; it’s also big reason why Sur patrons keep coming back. Offering 19 empanadas — including a generous selection of vegan options — sandwiches, quiches, and desserts, the restaurant creates everything by hand and all empanadas are baked to order.
While Sur offers a range of traditional Argentinian empanadas with fillings like ham and cheese and hand-cut beef that rival those of favorite empanada hot spots for expat porteños, it’s Suhr’s creative combinations, like the bacon and three cheese made with bacon, brie, blue cheese, and mozzarella; chicken and scallion; and mushroom and gouda that have created a buzz. Top contenders include several vegetarian options, like the caprese; corn and mozzarella; squash and goat cheese; and vegan varieties like cheese and mushrooms, Beyond beef and kalamata, creamy corn, and veggie.
Beyond empanadas, Suhr has also begun making Argentinian-style pizza called “pizza de molde” (a dish taken very seriously back home), served on Friday. Translating to “pizza in the pan” the pie boasts a thick and spongy dough donning ample amounts of cheese. Five different quiche flavors are offered each day as well as sandwiches like the traditional Argentine milanesa, featuring meat schnitzel, and a tuna salad sandwich, served with hard-boiled eggs, mixed greens, and tomatoes that has become one of the best selling surprises. There’s also a wide selection of pastries that include the popular pastra frola membrillo (quince), ricotta tart, and a variety of alfajores — the quintessential Argentine cookie — all of which pair well with an espresso. Diners can sit inside, relax in the patio, or, for those on the run, place their order from the ventanita up front.
The couple have big plans for expanding the restaurant, with thoughts of transforming the generous outdoor space into a performance arts venue, hosting closed door events, and introducing an evening menu that would include new night time-only empanada flavors. Patrons are eager for them to expand their hours, currently Monday through Friday from noon to five. Still, Suhr and Alonso are in no hurry, emphasizing they’d rather take things slowly and get them right, particularly since Suhr is the driving force in the kitchen, making everything from scratch with minimal help.
The energy of the kitchen is the energy one reflects in what they eat. I love that there’s a communion — union — among everyone,” Suhr says, explaining why these things take time.
Ultimately, Sur is just about the people as it is the food, something particularly poignant in these strange and isolating times.
“There’s such a story with Sur that goes so much more beyond eating an empanada. It’s difficult to replicate that. And the energy this place has in particular — it has a beautiful energy,” Suhr says.