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Buford Highway serves up affordable ethnic eats

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When college students think of a place to cause mayhem after hitting the books all day, Buford Highway probably doesn't come to mind. It isn't exactly within walking distance to Emory, Georgia State or Kennesaw State universities. But consider how Buford Highway is perfectly suited to college life: Restaurants are either open late or 24 hours, there's cheap shopping and even cheaper food, and some of the most authentic ethnic eateries in Atlanta can be found along the six-mile stretch of pavement that constitutes the heart of Buford Highway.

Anyone with a taste for sushi can vouch that Sushi House Hayakawa (5979 Buford Highway, 770-986-0010, www.atlantasushibar.com) outdoes the myriad sushi restaurants that have popped up downtown and in Midtown. Owner Atsushi "Art" Hayakawa, who previously worked at Midtown's MF Sushi, knows how to balance rice with just the right amount of fish and seaweed. Another key dish is the geso karaage (squid legs), fried to crunchy perfection or grilled (geso yaki) for a healthier version. Most items are translated into English, but ask your server for suggestions on the best dishes.

Many of Buford Highway's restaurants are near the Doraville MARTA Station, so transportation-challenged students need not fret; you just need $3.50 for a round-trip. Winner of Creative Loafing's Best Chinese, Café 101 (5412 Buford Highway, 770-458-8883, www.cafe101atlanta.com) is hailed for its bubble teas, kung pao chicken, smoked duck and a lengthy seafood list. The building's circular shape and interior look like an artsy Asian Vortex, with a wallpaper collage of colorful posters, designs and blown-up newspaper headlines.

CL's nod for Best Korean is only a couple blocks down the road and perfect after a night of clubbing. Highly recommended and praised for its barbecue, Hanil Kwan (5458 Buford Highway, 770-457-3217) has a large selection of meats and excellent service. A grill fired by hot charcoal sits in the middle of the table, where you can cook any of the meats to taste. The seasoned, spicy fish and boyang tang (black goat stew) are some of the best options on the menu.

Although Hanil Kwan is good for dining after 10 p.m., right around the corner 88 Tofu House (5490 Buford Highway, 770-457-8811) is open 24 hours every day, earning a reputation as the Korean Waffle House. In addition to the tofu choices (in eight different flavors), there's also plenty of vegetable, meat and seafood dishes. The spicy kimchi soup is a must, along with fried rice that mixes in mushrooms, egg, spinach and sprouts.

If you're not really one for authentic dishes and instead favor an Americanized versions, Buford Highway is home to those as well. Canton House (4825 Buford Highway, 770-936-9030, www.icantonhouse.com) is good for both Americanized and authentic Chinese food, not to mention the perfect size for large groups. Known for its wide variety of dim sum and late hours, college students can travel here after a concert or a night of studying.

While minced pork and pan-fried Cantonese noodles are featured on Canton House's menu, El Rey de Taco (5288 Buford Highway, 770-986-0095) is known for its Americanized Mexican food. All of the tortillas are handmade, and salsas and meats make for a superb taco stop.

Even cheaper than El Rey yet similar in its food's origin is Central American pupuseria Rincon Latino (5055 Buford Highway, 770-936-8181). Pupusa, which is thick, handmade flat bread with various fillings such as cheese, beans and pork, is the food of choice for under $2. Traditional Mexican dishes also sprinkle the menu like Salvadorian chicken and shrimp cocktails with sweet tomato sauce and fresh cilantro.

If you're looking for a bit of shopping and feasting without traveling far, try the Plaza Fiesta Food Court (4166 Buford Highway, 404-982-9138, www.plazafiesta.net). Find the perfect pair of cowboy boots or sunglasses at a frugal price while eating from Mexican bakeries and enjoying Central American shrimp cocktail. If you're looking for soy sauce besides Kikkoman and other hard-to-find ingredients for meals at the dorm or apartment, a farmer's market is also located inside the mall.

For a sweet dessert to complete any just-eaten entree, try Café Mozart (5301 Buford Highway, 770-936-8726). There are plenty of locations of this Korean bakery, so there may be one closer to campus, but complete your Buford Highway experience with artfully done pastries, cakes, bubble teas and more. The shaved ice is to die for, covered with mounds of fruit, milk and other toppings. Nothing beats the sweetness of the Asian post-meal.

Even though there are times when Buford Highway's restaurants are so authentic that you need to request an English menu or English-speaking waiter, the experience is definitely worth it. When you're out gallivanting in Midtown, spending more than $100 on drinks and eating overpriced sushi with fake crab, you may just want to consider Atlanta's best-kept secret.

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