Vada Pav on the Mumbai-Pune Expressway
I’m battling a heady mixture: a pumping, long-drive playlist and increasing deliriousness from a too-early morning. It’s been an hour of playing DJ in the front seat, making strategic selections to keep the driver, my husband, alert. There’s chirpy chatter coming from the back, where our friends are discussing their darkest theories for the next season of Game of Thrones.
With dragons and dungeons swimming across my sleepy mind, the music gets gloomier. But just before my husband can dart a sharp look at me, here we are: the pit stop that punctuates the road trip from sweltering Mumbai to the breezy hills of Lonavala, Khandala, and Pune. Shree Datta Snacks is a highway institution for local Maharashtrian snacks, smack in the middle of the speedy expressway.
Sure, you can get vada pav—a deep-fried potato patty with spices, wrapped in bread—at the corner of every street in Mumbai, and across Lonavala, Khandala or Pune for that matter. But the one at Datta holds not just the magic of perfectly powdered chutney, but also the promise of a great weekend away from the city.
We had the satisfaction of beating rush-hour traffic that morning, but the story once we got to Shree Datta Snacks was quite different. The roads had somehow brought hundreds of weekend revelers to this bland room. At Datta, particularly on a rainy weekend like this one, you’re always jostling outstretched arms, all trying to hand their tokens to the guy taking orders behind the counter. Like most old-school dining spaces in Mumbai, there are no lines here, just a mass of hungry people crowding at the counter, pushing their way forward, barking to shout over the next person. I try, I fail. I hand the token to taller, louder friends.
Phew. The food here comes in trays fashioned out of cardboard, a quick fix, like everything about the space. It’s a large room, dimly lit, hastily painted. A few bar-stool-shaped tables are the only furniture, and are just large enough to hold a couple of the cardboard trays. What’s in the trays is also a quick fix, from a menu designed to serve a rolling, on-the-go crowd.
I start tearing the delicate pav—bread—apart through the middle, to smother the mushy batata-vada, potato fritter. A generous stuffing of the dry red chutney, and the ensemble is complete. The bread now swaddles a searing yellow ball, the fiery chutney signals the first adventure of the weekend. I’m zapped awake. We finish with a shot of sugared-up chai for the road. The playlist gets louder, faster, happier. Soon, the hills appear in the distance.