Mr. Bourdain was right on the money. The vada pav is a glorious carb-on-carb overload — a spicy potato patty encased in a gram-flour coating, then sandwiched in a buttered bun and bathed in tangy garlic chutney.
Unpretentious street food like the vada pav — preferably bought from a surly vendor — is part of the great Indian travel experience. Still, it takes a brave tourist to sample the wares from a street vendor who is casually mashing potatoes with his bare and grubby hands, as flies buzz happily around. Luckily, a slew of restaurants are sanitizing street food, serving it in clean (if not always pristine) surroundings. At most places, you can eat like a king for less than $2.
At one of the numerous Jumbo King outlets across the city, you can eat vada pav in a range of flavors for just 7 rupees (about 14 cents at 50 rupees to the dollar). Jumbo King aims to be the McDonald’s of street snacks, and the uniformly wrapped vada pavs are served by plastic-gloved dispensers from gleaming steel fryers, with optional spicy chutney and garlic toppings.
At the sparkling clean but frantically busy Swati Snacks (248 Karai Estate, Tardeo Road; 91-22-6580-8406), opposite Bhatia Hospital, you can feast on chaat as delicious as that which you might get from chaatwalas at the famous Chowpatty Beach, only it won’t upset your stomach.
Chaat is the classic Mumbai street food, a catchall term for a savory medley of ingredients, which may include potatoes, gram-flour discs, onions, yogurt, chickpeas, mint, peanuts and various chutneys. Try the pani puri (crisp dough spheres filled with potatoes, sprouts and a tart date-tamarind sauce, which burst deliciously onto your palate), bhel puri (puffed rice mixed with onions, tomatoes, mint chutney, crunchy gram-flour threads, peanuts, lemon juice and coriander) and the milder pankhi (delicate rice pancakes steamed in banana leaves) — not exactly street food but too good to miss.
This is also one of the few safe places to sample golas (crushed ice balls bathed in rose or mint flavored syrup) and thirst-quenching sugar cane juice. Get there early though, as there are no reservations and the lines are long.
Kailash Parbat, another popular chain with outlets in many multiplexes, is a good place for other quintessential Mumbai snacks like pav bhaji (toasted buns heaped with a sinful, buttery vegetable hash) and ragda pattice (toasted potato cakes with chickpeas). In the Bandra suburb, Elco Pani Puri Center has hygienic chaat in air-conditioned comfort and is known for its pani puri. (Elco Arcade, Hill Road, Bandra; 91-22-2645-7677).
There will always be those Mumbaikars who tell you that street snacks eaten in restaurants just can’t compare with the authentic fare of “Raju the blind chaatwala at the second open drain behind the Churchgate Railway Station.” They are probably right. There’s something about the down-and-dirtiness of real street fare that makes it all the tastier. The best vendors are usually to be found outside colleges and railway stations.
If you do risk the genuine article, be sure to choose hot snacks straight from the griddle or deep fryer, avoid chutneys, juices and sauces, toss out the raw onion and tomatoes and stick with Vegetarian options if you have a delicate tummy. After all, what’s good enough for Anthony Bourdain ...