| (From top) A1 Plaza off National Highway 6 in Uluberia; thalis on offer at the eatery
Driving to one’s destination, especially for a holiday with friends and/or family, has a distinct charm of its own. Most favourite childhood memories of such safaris go back to Africa in the 1960s. Our longest and most ambitious one was from Kampala, capital of Uganda, to Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania (then Tanganyika), via Nairobi in Kenya and back, a total of about 4,000 miles, of which only about a thousand were on tarmac roads.
Cars caked with dust, butterflies and other insects of every variety caught in their grills, mile upon mile through completely uninhabited jungle and then through the gameparks of the Savannahs, with Mount Kilimanjaro shining, imperious, against a clear blue sky.
Motels and small hotels were few and far between and mostly only the arrival in a town or city signalled the chance to have a hot bath, a good meal and some rest. Although rally driving in Kenya still continues to be one of sport’s greatest challenges, things must be vastly different now, with the adventure and hardship considerably less.
In the subcontinent, the Himalayan Rally must offer motorists the toughest terrain, and in general travelling by road in the hills of the North-East, Himachal, Nepal and Bhutan has been a good adrenaline rush. The plains, however, have all bitumen roads and with the Golden Quadrilateral project becoming a reality in parts of the country highway, travelling is beginning to have another kind of attraction — that of being smooth, comfortable and fast — so that people who prefer convenience over challenge are taking to the roads more and more. And it is a boon for the truckers, who are surely the modern-day cowboys of India, keeping the lifeline of road transport going, day in and day out.
Into this scenario enters the A1 Plaza, a rest and food stop with state-of-the-art amenities, like computerised bathrooms and in-house entertainment, attached to 107 petrol stations spread across the country, set up by Reliance Industries Ltd at their retail outlets, and all 107 are on the highways, taking road travel across the country into a new dimension and making life easier for frequent travellers and truckers alike.
One couple, who travelled from Kanyakumari to Darjeeling, arriving on the fifth day, made 10 stops en route and every one of them was at an A1 Plaza. They have arrived at providing a uniformity of quality and experience across the network, and each plaza has a national menu and a regional menu, the former consisting of about two dozen items prepared strictly according to the same guidelines.
The A1 Thali, which comes for Rs 30, is part of the national menu and has Rice, Tandoori Roti, Tadka, a Vegetable Curry and Chutney or Pickle. Parathas (stuffed with potatoes, cauliflower or paneer), Chhola Bhatura, Dal Makhani, Alu Puri, Alu Jeera, Egg Bhaji, Egg Curry, Chicken Curry, Chicken Biryani and Tandoori Chicken are also on this menu.
Snacks like samosa and vegetable sandwiches and breakfast items such as omlettes and toast also appear here, as do a host of beverages including chhaas, lassi and three or four kinds of tea. All A1 Plazas have a fresh juice counter and a Truckers Shop.
I visited the A1 Plaza off National Highway 6, just past Uluberia in Howrah District, on the Kharagpur Road, which has become a smooth, four-lane expressway. For a Sunday lunch. This plaza is built on a smaller scale than some of the others in the network and is more popular with car travellers than truckers, mainly because of the timings of the truck convoys (it is the opposite at Siliguri), and it is a neat, well appointed place with plenty of parking space and a playing area for children.
Lunch was a mix of items from the national and regional menus. There was Tandoori Chicken and Tandoori Bekti — an excellent item made from locally sourced, fresh, small bekti, cooked whole and you can actually feel the juice in the flesh. Marinated with yoghurt, ginger-garlic paste, chilli paste, Kashmiri chilli powder, red chilli powder, cumin powder, coriander powder, fenugreek powder and white pepper and smeared with a little mustard oil before going into the tandoor, it is a divine starter.
We also had Tadka and Dal Fry, Alu Gobi, Mutton Kasha and Poppadom. Wholesome, with the dhaba feel quite intact. Items from the regional menu obviously have a Bengali slant and depending on what’s in the market on a given day you will run into Mocha, Chhenchra, Shukto, Murighonto, Fish Fry, Fish Tikka, a variety of fish curries and Chingri Malai.
If you want to freshen up seriously before your meal, head for the Premium Showers where you will be given a password to punch into a keypad at the door of the shower room and it will unlock. A fresh towel and soap and hot and cold running water for a 20-minute stay for Rs 15.
There are three dining areas at this plaza — an airconditioned space, a normal dining area and seats outside in the open as well. And of course, you can refill your petrol tanks.
Have plazas, will travel.