Match the syllables 'Clay' and 'ton' and just try not to call to mind the Australian Synchrotron – you know, that MCG-sized apparatus that generates radioactive x-ray beams one million times brighter than our closest sun.
It's undoubtedly Clayton's greatest thing but in its shadows lies one of Melbourne's great unsung food suburbs. As a foodie hub, Clayton tends to be sidestepped for neighbouring culinary wunderburbs Springvale and Oakleigh. But with less than a quarter of its population born in Australia, it's every bit as diverse, delicious and worthy of your custom.
The bulk of Clayton's comestibles are found on its main drag, Clayton Road, but as is often the case in a good 'burb, the orbiting clusters of shops and restaurants that flank the milk bars and local post offices tend to be where it's at. Our food day begins in one such cluster, at Chilean bakery Marciano's Cakes. Sweets-wise, "Melbourne's finest South American cake shop since 1996" is a monument to latin caramel, dulce de leche, which dominates most of its pastries, and indeed everything the light touches south of the Panama Canal. Kick things off with a homemade alfajor – a dulce de leche filled, coconut encrusted biscuit sandwich – and a cafe con leche (coffee with milk). Arguably the bigger drawcard, though, are the hefty homemade empanadas, which are a) triangular and b) roughly three times the size of a conventional empanada, and are filled de pino (spiced beef mince, egg, onion and a sneaky black olive), or de queso (cheese). Finally, from Tuesday through Sunday Marciano's enters the suburb's steak sandwich racket (more on that at lunch) with the 'el macho' sandwich: a culinary manspread of skirt steak, egg, bacon, avo, cheese, spicy pebre, sauerkraut and more between a dense amasado roll.
Head west on Centre Road to a neighbouring cluster of five Sri Lankan restaurants and drop into Cafe Sugarcraft. A bain marie of fragrant curries served on stringhoppers (coiled discs of angel-hair rice noodles) and on regular hoppers (a crisp-edged, bowl-shaped pancake made from fermented rice flour and coconut milk) on weekends after 6pm offers a good sit-down option popular with Clayton's considerable Sri Lankan population. But savvy passersby are here for the short eats (on-the-go snacks), and in particular, the curry filled godamba roti, a comforting parcel of spicy beef curry wrapped tightly in smooth roti, thrown in a brown paper bag and sold at $3.50 a pop.
Strolling north via the main drag and to a train station-adjacent cluster, a friendly war wages between Clayton's premier Indian restaurants. For us, North Indian spot Taste of Taj takes the honours, if not for its vast cabinet of Indian sweets that pulls an out-the-door queue, then for its unbelievable chollay bhature: a hearty chickpea masala served as spicy as you wish, plated with raw red onion, pickled lemon, raita and two rounds of bhature – a leavened, fried flat bread that puffs and stretches considerably before breaking; picture the lovechild of a tortilla and a Chinese doughnut. (This will technically be brunch as Taste of Taj doesn't open until 11am.)
Marciano's Cakes, 1481 Centre Road (also at 126 Mitchell Street, Maidstone)
Cafe Sugarcraft, 1308 Centre Road
Taste of Taj, 1/151 Carinish Road
A good 15 minute stroll north to yet another bountiful shopping strip on Dandenong Road will have you at Wang's Noodle House: a dank Lanzhou lamian (hand pulled noodles) joint straight out of western China. Scale the spooky stairs to the dark second floor, where the only source of light comes from the windows at the restaurant's south end, and take a seat. Like malatang and xiao long bao before it, Lanzhou lamian is on the cusp of its own boom in Melbourne, and Wang's might just be the city's best rendition. Five thin slices of beef lie on lovingly folded, hand-pulled noodles, with crescents of radish, spring onion and coriander. The broth is the best in the city – salty to and zinging with anise and bone. As gruff as those in Lanzhou, this is as legit as it comes.
Directly below, the Malaysian fare at Sue'z Delights comes MC'd by Sue's septuagenarian husband, whose convoluted blackboard menu necessitates an 'Intro to Ordering' induction that takes roughly two minutes per customer. It's actually quite a good rapport building exercise, and as such we choose to believe him when he says "a lot of my customers tell me my Char Kwei Tiau is very good". He's not wrong. Fried egg, minced pork, prawns, onion, fish cake, bok choy and flat rice noodles are piled three meals' high and cooked Penang-style in light soy. Come for the noodles, stay for the 100 Plus, the national isotonic soft drink of Malaysia.
If you skipped the steak sandwich at Marciano's Cakes, follow your tracks south to the original cluster on Centre Road and enter For Heaven's Steaks – a licensed, specialty steak sandwich joint that presents like a fish and chip shop but knocks out stonkingly great steak subs. The steak here comes on a longer, crustier roll than down the road, and packs roasted peppers, tomato, cheese, egg and more as standard. Pimp your sanga with artichoke and prosciutto and match it with a shot of Italy's favourite artichoke-flavoured aperitif Cynar or an ice-cold Crownie.
Wang's Noodle House, 1915a Dandenong Road
Sue'z Delights, 1915 Dandenong Road
For Heaven's Steaks, 1465 Centre Road
Arriving on the main drag at sundown, pull into Clayton Road's specialty Indonesian noodle restaurant Pondok Bamboe Koening for its homemade mie kuning: a thin yellow wheat and egg noodle made to order out the back. The mie babi tops those noodles with minced pork, sweet braised pork belly and bok choy and dresses it all with sweet and light soys and a decent glug of fish sauce. Each bowl comes with an easygoing chicken broth on the side, a thoughtful foil for the umami onslaught and a generous gesture when the noodles are priced at just $8.50 a bowl.
A few doors down, northeast Chinese barbecue specialist Show Time BBQ & Dumpling Bar is dinner and a show in the post-Dracula's era (R.I.P.). A karaoke screen backdrops the 80-pax room, its lounge seating dressed in UK and US flag pillows. An unassuming middle-aged man with a voice as pure as Anthony Callea's takes on singing duties for the evening, pouring his heart out over some 40bpm Mandopop power ballads like he's proposing to everyone in the restaurant simultaneously. Nearly everyone is here for the chuan'r classics: skewers of lamb and lamb fat, mantou (steamed bread, grilled) and jiucai (Chinese leek), all doused in cumin; the dishes pair surprisingly well with an inoffensive Snow beer.
Finally, diagonally across the road sits Pakistani stalwart Man-O-Salwa, open until midnight daily. Its chicken karahi – one of Pakistan's flagship curries – arrives as an intricately spiced, textured tomato-based gravy; this in concert with a pillowy naan draws a crowd, as does the chicken biryani. A word to the wise: at the counter you'll clock small white and green packets selling for 60 cents. They're called paan bahar – and are sold as "mouth fresheners". A combination of mint, rose petal, sugar and coconut is rolled into a ball the size of a hazelnut and is indeed mouth freshening, but the lurking betel nut within is a curveball we did not account for, resulting in an unexpected narcotic high. I make my way home by train; those who drove will do well to freshen their mouths by other means.
Pondok Bamboe Koening, 354 Clayton Road
Show Time BBQ & Dumpling Bar, 348 Clayton Road
Man-O-Salwa, 333a Clayton Road