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Art, free wine and very little pretense

April 27, 2006|Cindy Chang | Special to The Times

LIKE many urbanites who aspire to "know" their city and its culture, I have a dirty little secret: There are some neighborhoods I know only from the freeway.

For a long time, Highland Park was another blot on my artsy-fartsy bona fides. Commuting on the 110 to Pasadena, I drove past the numbered avenues and majestic Victorians hundreds of times without ever stopping.

Enter the Northeast Los Angeles Arts Organization's gallery night. Held on the second Saturday of every month, the tour seemed like a good opportunity to explore the vigor, variegated arts scene and unpretentious eateries of Highland Park and Eagle Rock.

As dusk fell that Saturday night, locals swarmed the taco trucks parked along Figueroa Street. Just around the corner at Avenue 50 Studio, middle-aged people in vaguely ethnic clothing gazed at vaguely ethnic art while a drum troupe banged out syncopated rhythms in the center of the room.

Next door at the Acorn, my companion and I got our first taste of what was to be one of the highlights of our tour: Nearly every gallery offered free munchies and Charles Shaw. Some of the art may have been humdrum, but the only price-to-happiness ratio more satisfying than two-buck Chuck is free two-buck Chuck.

On our way out, we looked longingly at the taco trucks. But we were saving our appetites for Casa Bianca, the famous Eagle Rock pizza joint. The customer reviews on Citysearch were neatly polarized, with some bestowing divinity and others pronouncing the place vastly overrated. I was looking forward to choosing sides in the pizza wars.

Walking from gallery to gallery along Figueroa, the unspoiled authenticity of the neighborhood began to work its magic on me. The hipsters were there but blended unobtrusively among the pupuserias and nail salons. How cheap were the rents these days? I could almost see myself living there.

A short drive away at Mor York, there was more Charles Shaw, and a flash of artistic brilliance: Clare Graham's ingenious and painstaking sculptures made of found objects such as buttons, dominoes and soda can pop tops. By 9:30 p.m., however, we had visited fewer than half the galleries on the map, and pizza beckoned.

The wait at Casa Bianca was an hour even at that time of night, but our impatience was easily soothed with $2.50 glasses of Chianti. The wine, alas, turned out to be the best part of the meal. We should have yielded to the taco truck's siren song and spent the latter part of the evening visiting more galleries and downing more Charles Shaw.

At least in coming down on the side of Casa Bianca detractors, I could count one fewer corner of our vast city unvisited.


The tab

Art Free

What: Second Saturday Gallery Night, Highland Park and Eagle Rock, second Saturday of every month (next: May 13). Map, info:

Dinner $30

What: Dinner for two, including wine, salad, zucchini sticks and pizza, Casa Bianca Pizza Pie, 1650 Colorado Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 256-9617

Total $30

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