I cycled a hundred kilometres for Mumbai's most famous vada pao.
Thats a bit of an exaggeration, I admit. Not the cycling, the fame of the vada pao. I discovered two crucial things on reaching Panvel - one, the McDonalds is not actually in Panvel (its nearly 4km before Panvel) and two, that watermelons are more common than vada pao there. No one in Panvel seemed to think that there was anything very famous about vada paos in Panvel; finally an auto-driver doubtfully pointed me to Wagesh.
Wagesh turned out to be Wagesh Pao Bhaji Center, a short diversion into the market near the bus stand. For someone with a famous vada pao, it was surprising that the only thing associated with pao on the signboard was bhaji, but I went in anyway. Its a tiny joint that's been around for forty years, serving various fried combinations of besan, batata and bread to what seemed a surprisingly large customer base. The samosa was great and the misal outstanding. Their samosa is the flat, thin-skinned triangular kind, not the pyramid shaped Punjabi variant, and the misal, was oily, spicy but unusualy, had batata in it - the same batata that fills the vadas! And it was tasty!! Unfortunately, I never got taste the masthead-advertised pao bhaji - that happens only in the evenings.
The Vada Pao, however, was a disappointment. Strictly okayish is the best I can do for it. However, I wasn't willing to give up so easily. I asked at Wagesh where they would consider vada pao was great, and they pointed me to Dutta Snacks, a bit further down the road.
A bit was a little over two kilometres. Dutta (not, unfortunately anything to do with Bengalis) is at the junction where the Pune and Goa branches of the old highway part ways. It was, unlike Wagesh, a very highway food court kind of place where you had to buy coupons first and pick up stuff from the counter. Strictly self-service. For some reason, the place also had a counter selling bunches of Alibag's famous white onions (though that was not what was used in the dishes)
Here again, my foray to the coupon counter yieled misal and vada pao. And tea. And the pattern repeated. The misal (though distinctly different from Wagesh) was great. No batatas, less of the crunchy stuff, but lots of taste. The vada pao, as before, will again be described as strictly okayish. The tea was fantastic.
Conclusion: For great vada pao stick to Juhu. If in Panvel and desperate to avoid any taint of McDonald's, head to Wagesh or Dutta for misal.