BY MICHELLE SATHE La Charrita Restaurant is full of surprises. What appears on the outside to be a tiny joint in a modest strip mall in Newhall is actually a festive, family-run restaurant with a bright, open interior. There are colorful accents on the wall and the tables, cheerful music overhead and a Spanish speaking TV station playing in the corner. It’s a place where you quickly feel at home, where the service is friendly and the prices are fair. The menu is a mashup of traditional favorites brought over from Mexico by owners Fernando and Elena Gonzales, who have been in the restaurant business for more than a quarter century. Of course, you’ll find beloved Mexican dishes at La Charrita like menudo, pozole, tamales, enchiladas, burritos, and tostadas. On the seafood side, there are ceviche tostadas, cocktails, and soups, plus grilled shrimp and fish plates. The truly unexpected touch here is a focus on vegan options, courtesy of daughter and co-owner Lupe Meza, who wanted to share a love of plant-based food with her customers. What’s even more amazing is how delicious these dishes are and the incredibly beautiful presentation La Charrita’s small kitchen lovingly adds to each. Take the roasted sopes veganos de soyrizo coliflor ($8.50). Roasted cauliflower, the “It” vegetable of the moment, has the perfect amount of char. It’s tossed with spicy soy-based “chorizo” and set atop a thick, crisp fried cornmeal disc layered with delectably creamy refried beans and “cheese.” A bit of cabbage is sprinkled on the cauliflower for crunch and color. It’s a feast for the eyes and the senses. Then there’s the al pastor jackfruit tacos ($2.75 a la carte or $7.95 for three). The jackfruit tastes just like well-cooked, shredded chicken, complete with a meaty essence and crispy edges. The taco is drizzled with a luscious chipotle crema and showered with pico de gallo on a double layered corn tortilla. Wow. If you are a carnivore who doubts you could ever like vegan food, this taco will make you a believer. It’s as satisfying as any meat taco and the best vegan dish I’ve ever had. For a more piquant, vegetal experience, try the tacos de nopalitos ($2.75 a la carte or $7.95 for three). Cactus is sautéed with chunks of tomato and onion, then layered with cilantro, cabbage, and red pepper. It’s a unique, refreshingly light taco that really hits the spot on a hot summer day. If you ask nicely, La Charrita will make you a papas con rajas taco a la carte or as part of a taco trio (it’s not officially on the menu). The filling is mixture of rich, tender potatoes and aromatic onions topped with more of that fab spicy crema. Meat lovers can’t go wrong with the Carne Charrita ($13.95), sautéed steak with bell pepper, tomatoes, onion, and bacon, with a side of guacamole salsa and jalapenos. Red-tinged rice and ranch-style beans are a perfect foil for the hearty, tangy stew, which begs to be sopped up with the huge, hot flour tortilla generously provided. Homemade agua frescas pair fabulously with La Charrita’s food. Choose from the tartly sweet, gorgeously purple Jamaica to a vanilla and cinnamon infused almond and coconut milk vegan horchata to a vibrant cucumber and mint-infused lemonade that will make your taste buds sing. Oh, and did I mention breakfast? Yep, that’s served here too, from omelets to breakfast burritos with your choice of meat or vegan versions of both ($5.50 to $12.95). So much to try at La Charrita. I can’t wait to go back. La Charrita Restaurant, 24225 Main Street, Newhall. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 10:30 am to 8 pm. Sunday, 10:30 am to 5 pm. Closed Monday. Catering and take out available. For more information, call (661) 288-1204.