[Hole In the Wall] Get Wrapped Up in the Signature Café
Where’s the Wat?
Every time you see the Ethiopian owner here, she seems apologetic. Her tiny restaurant is a hit among the corporate drones in the office parks near John Wayne Airport, which means the always-fresh, never-frozen ingredients for the many sandwiches and wraps available usually run out by lunchtime. “No more mushrooms, so no more No. 24,” she’ll say sadly, but a bit peeved—customers are behind you, waiting on the side. But then, a smile. “I still have beef. You like beef? We make it really good.”
Signature Café is a place brimming with pride, from the neo-Italian décor and calligraphic menu font to pictures of beaming kiddies in graduation gowns on the counter to the owner herself, who will walk out your order and check in a couple of minutes later even if you sit outside. Though they specialize in grub easy for white-collar workers to take away and eat at their desk, Signature prepares them with the care and craft of a proper, sit-down restaurant. The owner takes tried-and-true wraps—beef, chicken, salad—and uses Ethiopian cooking methods for their flavor: Think slowly burning sauces like berbere, sweetened meats and aromatic offerings. Chicken becomes outstanding; a lamb special is enlivened with roasted jalapeños. Vegetarians can stick with freshly made hummus and baba ghanoush versions, no less tasteful than their meat counterparts and, in the baba ghanoush’s case, even better with eggplant’s telltale smokiness. Even Signature’s Mediterranean salad, which is a choice with every entrée and bizarrely gets served in a small bag, is a stunner: feta cheese, Ethiopian-style sautéed spinach, and crispy roughage drizzled with olive oil. Three-quarters of the restaurants in Orange County would kill to make something this delicious.
The fun starts at six in the morning, so you can wire yourself for the day with pastries, an egg breakfast and even Turkish coffee. I only have one real issue with Signature Café: the lack of full-blown Ethiopian dishes. Apparently, the owner used to make a couple of dishes but scrapped that menu due to a lack of interest. She limited the specials to lamb tibis, but even though a recently posted paper covering up the Ethiopian portion of the menu says that the stew is now just a Wednesday specialty, it’s no longer available. You can tell the owner’s culinary dreams are in Amharic, not just because of the Ethiopian seasonings she uses or because the restaurant’s aroma, sweet with spices and butters, is the same scent that permeates Little Ethiopia in Los Angeles, but because her retelling of Signature’s failed Ethiopian experiment is told with melancholy. Gentle readers: Gobble up those wraps, but ask again and again for Ethiopian grub—at the very least, to let her know some of us share her dreams.
Signature Café at 2222 Michelson Dr., Ste. 200, Irvine, (949) 756-0747; www.mysignaturecafe.com.
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