Highway in my street...the mystery of Papa Pancho, Bandra

 Interspersed the post with pics instead of dumping them at the end as per your feedback.

Think 'dhabas' and you think of the legendary pit stops on the highways of India. Trucks parked. Swarthy drivers taking a break over tumblers of lassi, resting on charpoys (sort of hammocks on four legs). The picture that comes to mind is that of twirling moustaches, rippling muscles, calloused hands and colourful turbans. Dusty roads where men and are men and the milk full cream.

Now in an ideal world I would be a travel writer who would fly business class, stay in seven stars and then go and eat in hole in the walls nearby. I suspect that I am not alone. So you would find a string of 'dhabas' in most Indian cities, bringing in the romance of the roads into our own alleys. An urbane way of eating earthy Punjabi trucker's food. Often with sacrilegious matching cutlery and even tissue paper.

We have a 'dhaba' at Bandra too. Bang in the middle of Mumbai's 'Queen of The Suburbs', home to film stars and expatriates, once an East Indian colony, now a booming cosmopolitan hot spot. Coffee shops, gelaterias, sushi bars ... you can think of lot of things when it comes to Bandra. But surely not a 'dhaba'.

Well actually there is a place called 'Azad Hind' if I remember right opposite Nootan Nagar near Bandra Station where I used to live as a PG (paying Guest). I had been there once. A congested grimy place serving hearty dhaba food. Legend has it that Dharmendra, the original Punjab da puttar (son of Punjab), used to eat there when he was a struggling actor. I must confess that it's been ages since I have been down that road. So would be great if someones been there recently and tell us more about it. Hope the place is still there. Hope I got the name right.

Dharmendra...in another century. Photo source: http://www.movieinf.com/dharmendra/

I am not talking of Dharamji's dhaba here though. I am talking of Papa Pancho, the make belief dhaba at Pali Naka. Sandwiched between Cocoberry and Toni and Guy. Brands yet to dot the highways of India. Papa Pancho was started years back by ad film maker, Prahalad Kakkar. The man who also made The India Tea Centre fashionable. Kakkar's associations with both places ended eventually but both continued to popular spots in the Mumbai landscape.

Though why Papa Pancho is so popular remains to be as much a mystery as why Punjabi food represents 'Indian' internationally. Papa Pancho is not cheap. I wrote about Papa Pancho earlier. I had mentioned that the standard of food is 'uneven' to put it politely. The waiters are singularly uninformed for a restaurant of this price and at the heart of Bandra. They can barely answer your questions even when you speak to them in Hindi. And the other day should have pointed out that we had over ordered.

Yet Papa Pancho continues to be full in most evenings. And, what the hell, even we went back. I guess they have a lucky charm. Well, as Woody Allen says, 'whatever works'.

I wanted to try the Punjabi winter fare at Papa Pancho. K and I went there a few nights back. The decor was still true to the deliberately Punjabi kitsch which was conjured by adman Kakkar. The conversation from the neighbouring tables were full of '40 second edits', 'new surf excel ad', 'ad shoots in Kerala' and on the way out we even bumped into a girl who was a model in one of K's ad films.  In fact, barring the waiters and me, most people around me, including K, seemed to be connected with advertising and as taking about it as ad folks tend to do. But you can't hold that against a restaurant.

You could eat at 5 dhabas at these prices...but then this is Bandra

Look Ma, no onions

There is a small upper section too


The service was inert and the waiter definitely didn't seem to be anything like the lively, jovial, chatty folks one would associate with dhabas. We had evidently over-ordered. Each dish came with daal, roti and curd on the side. We ordered two main courses. And then a kulcha. Wish the waiter had stopped us the way the guys at 5 Spice do when you over-order.

The lassi was too sweet and too frothy. Now, I don't  have a benchmark from Punjab but the lassis at places such as Moti Lassi, the fifty year old Punjabi sweetshop  at Fort, and Mathura Sweets, another fifty year oldshop, are way creamier. Kainaz's nimbu paani (or fresh lemonade) smelt of raw onions. Which, with my limited knowledge of mixology, is not de rigeur.

The best part about the lassi was the tumbler

Why do I keep coming back to you?

So the drinks were dodgy. And how was the food? Well the 'winter stuff' that I went for was good actually. The sarson ke saag, the winter speciality of Punjab, apparently made with pureed leaves of mustard was fresh, zestful and was guaranteed to make you feel warm on a chilly evening. I am not Punjabi so wouldn't know if this is the way moms would make it but it did leave us with a peaceful, easy feeling. As were the makkai ki roti (maize rotis) which usually go with sarson ke saag. The makkai rotis here were stiff, firm, crusty and yet left a distinctly pleasant memory with each bite. It had the rustic texture of highway food and the simple, honesty which go with them.

The winter dessert of gajar ka halwa (made with shredded carrots) had its moments. It was hot, not overtly sweet. A lot less richer than the gajjar ka halwas that I have eaten at the sweet shops at New Delhi during winter or even Punjab Sweets down the road at Bandra. This seemed to be an unusually fitness conscious version of the usually rich and decadent North Indian treat. Still, worked for us city slickers who don't have the heart and passion of thoroughbred sons of Punjab.

One of these combos. and a kulcha are enough for two in my opinion

Sarson ke saag

A rather pale gajar ka halwa

The dahi or curd which came with the meals had a nice maternal feel to it. The texture was was rough and choppy like that of home made curd. Different from the Star- trooper smooth packaged curds that we buy. Almost felt as if Kirron Kher, the popular choice to play Punjabi mothers in Hindi films these days, was feeding you. Now that's disturbing.

The black daal, which came on the side, was exactly as I remembered it to be at Papa Pancho. Lukewarm and insipid. Almost as if a timid Bengali or a Tamilian had tried to make this robust Punjabi daal. A weak shadow of the black daals that you get at Khaane Khaas or Kakori House at Bandra.

I wanted to have a kulcha and K encouraged me to go for it. We ordered an 'Amritsari Kulcha. 'Amritsari because it had 'peas and potatoes' according to the waiter. A man who should have told us to shut up and stop ordering. Our main dishes came with parathas/ rotis but it was too late to cancel the kulchas. My take is that one full meal and one kulcha would be enough for two. The kulchas were hot but lacked the passion and big heartedness of the Kulchas at Punjab Sweets. This was a paler version.

A very soulless rendition of maa ki daal, soul food for Punjabis

A fairly forgettable kulcha

Kirron Kher, Punjabi for Bollywood Mom. Photo source: http://www.net-planet.org/entertainment/videos/index.php?key=Kirron+Kher

And finally the 'I told you moment'. Kainaz warned me that the chicken here wasn't good. I still went ahead and ordered a tangdi (drumstick) kebab. It looked luscious but was tough and undercooked. There was  blood streaking down the meat. We certainly hadn't asked for 'rare'. No Salmonella worries of the The Master Chef Australia judges.

The chicken was not only uncooked but it lacked flavour too. I packed the rest of the chicken, shredded it the next morning, tossed it with diced onions & chillies in a pan and made chicken rolls the next morning. The meat was still tough. The blood there, though no longer fresh. And the only flavour that came was from the fried onions and chillies. Very avoidable.

Yes, the wife is always right

Extra tough chicken

This, rather average meal for two, cost us more than Rs 800 (USD 20ish), which was highway robbery. But this is Bandra. And for some reason the crowds will continue to pour in.

At least the after meals digestive golis had some spunk. The light was good for photography. But my search for good Punjabi food in Mumbai continues,

'golis' which brought the dinner to a digestible end