El Gran Sabor offers an authentic bite of Venezuelan fare in small-town Elkins.


Elkins in fall is postcard-worthy. Flaming foliage lines quiet streets, white fog drapes valleys and riverbanks, and piles of pumpkins and dried corn decorate doorsteps and storefronts. It is small-town America at its finest. But step into one unassuming little restaurant on Kerens Avenue, in an old house with a wide front porch in the shadow of the famous iron statue of West Virginia Senator Henry Gassaway Davis atop his horse, and get ready to be transported out of autumnal Appalachia and into the heart of tropical Venezuela. Although the home’s exterior might remind you of a trip to grandma’s, with its wooden siding and dormer windows, inside you’ll find a warm, intimate dining space painted in splashes of bright color set off with dark woods and low lighting. Even the smell will stop you in your tracks—one part spices and fresh herbs, one part hot oil and sweet corn.

Derdlim Masten, co-owner, head chef, and native Venezuelan agrees, it was a risk opening her restaurant—called El Gran Sabor, or The Great Flavor—in this close-knit, rural community of little more than 7,200 people. Her passion for great food propelled her on. “But I had to teach them who I was and what I serve,” she says. “Everyone thinks Venezuelan food is like Mexican food. It’s very different.”

And teach them she has over the last 13 years in business. If you’re looking to educate yourself, start with light flatbread arepas stuffed with savory meats and cheeses or crispy empanadas bursting with choice fillings. And always order the cachapas, fluffy sweet pancakes made with ground corn folded over a generous helping of melted cheese and meat and served with Latin rice, black beans, and soup or salad. Ask nearly any El Gran fan in Elkins and they’ll also tell you to try the crispy fried plantains, called tostonés, and creamy sweet flan, a dessert made of milk, eggs, and sugar often topped with a caramel sauce.

This surprising restaurant offers a full menu of slightly Americanized Venezuelan, Mexican, and Caribbean dishes—everything from spicy shrimp salad to rotisserie chicken to burritos, tacos, and chalupas—all made to Derdlim’s exacting standards. “We make everything fresh,” she says. “That’s why we are constantly cooking and prepping. And that’s why I have to be here 97 percent of the time.”

Derdlim didn’t start out knowing exactly what to serve and how to serve it to the Elkins community. Like El Gran’s customers and their transforming tastes, she’s come a long way since cracking her first egg at age 11, when she started helping her mother take care of her three younger sisters in Venezuela. “The beginning was rice and black beans and fried eggs. Slowly I was creating more things and putting together tastes,” she says. Her mother took notice and allowed her to attend cooking classes during the summer with her aunt. Derdlim also made and sold tamales with her aunt around the Christmas holiday season. Through the years her love of cooking never left her.

So in 2000 she took a chance and moved to America, learning English, and taking odd jobs at restaurants and cleaning houses. A year into her stay she met Rob, a Tucker County music teacher and musician in a salsa band. Having grown up with the music of salsa and merengue in her blood, she knew Rob needed some help with his dancing and offered to teach him. By 2002 these dancing partners became man and wife, and when an opportunity to start a restaurant came up, they became business partners as well.

Derdlim says the menu was also a process of evolution. After visiting Venezuela together, the couple sat down and worked to combine what they knew. Derdlim, as a native to the cuisine, brought her expertise and training. Rob, much more familiar with the people and tastes of West Virginia, helped her fuse that knowledge with local culture.

Eventually the partners found the perfect middle ground and Derdlim started whipping up new versions of classic Venezuelan dishes. She also added a bit of Cuban and Costa Rican influence and started cooking American favorites like tilapia. But she says her authentic cachapas quickly became the most popular dish. “That was the key to bringing a lot of people in. Because cachapas are like a cornbread pancake and Americans love pancakes and corn.” Although her recipe lacks the fresh Venezuelan corn she’s used to cooking with, she says her altered version is just as good. “I spent maybe two months adding this and that. I wanted it to be different but the same—98 percent Venezuelan but a little American. Now I have Venezuelan friends who want the recipe,” she laughs. But don’t ask her to write it down for you. “I just get ideas. I play with my food. I don’t have anything written down. If you asked me how I made something, I’d say bring me a blender and I’ll show you. That’s how I cook.”

These days Derdlim, Rob, and their son live just upstairs from their thriving business, which serves up not only creative cuisine but also coffee and free live music on Wednesdays and Fridays, and local beer on tap. The restaurant also plays host to charity events like the El Gran Fest every year. For Derdlim, giving back to the town that welcomed her so warmly has been just as important as remaining true to her heritage. “Rob has always said we needed to support the community. And I love Elkins. They have been with me and supported me so well,” she says. “Without them I could not be here.”

El Gran Sabor, 413 Kerens Avenue, Elkins, 304.614.8841, elgransabor.com

 

written by Mikenna Pierotti | photographed by Carla Witt Ford

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