Shish Kebab House, 5039 West Olive, Glendale, 937-8757. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Without a doubt, the most misleading word in the English language is "authentic." That's because most people confuse authenticity with quality. I've heard orchestras play Beethoven on original instruments, aiming to duplicate for 20th-century audiences the same sound that the composer's first listeners experienced. I've seen artisans from remote African villages working over their looms, weaving traditional strips of decorative cloth. I've headed into the Iranian desert to watch local potters fashion their clay vases. And I've eaten many meals, from a Persian sheep's head broth to a Senegalese millet porridge, that would stand up to any anthropological culinary investigation. The music, the crafts and the food couldn't have been more authentic. Unfortunately, they were also authentically bad. Hearing Beethoven on original instruments reminds me of what Mark Twain said about Wagner: His music is better than it sounds. Almost all the African and Iranian crafts I hauled back make better souvenirs than aesthetic statements. And I'd have to be utterly famished before I'd ever again dip a spoon into sheep's head soup, even if it weren't served at breakfast. So when I scout out Valley ethnic restaurants, I don't care too much about slavish devotion to native recipes. Sure, I want the food to be genuine--who enjoys spotting pork chops on a Middle Eastern menu? But mostly I want the fare to be genuinely tasty. Shish Kebab House is a perfect case in point. Tucked away in a corner strip mall, it appears to be just an unassuming Glendale gyro parlor. Its Iranian proprietor doesn't get caught up serving exotic Persian delicacies that would perplex and confuse his west-side customers. He wisely offers the kind of Middle Eastern food that will appeal more to local sensibilities than to homesick natives longing for sheep broth. And even more wisely, he dishes out substantial portions of excellent fare at reasonable prices. No wonder he seems to have connected with the neighborhood. The surprisingly spiffy place has several Iranian touches at every table: woven carpet strips under the glass tabletop; a shaker of sumac, a purple spice, next to the salt and pepper; and a pretty vase of silk flowers.
But the owner refrains from cooking to Middle Eastern music. On both my visits, the radio was resolutely set at the country-music station. The food is pitched to the same tastes. Take the combination platter of barg and koobideh. Barg is a flattened strip of tenderloin, marinated, skewered and grilled. Koobideh is fragrantly seasoned ground beef prepared the same way. The meat here doesn't have quite the exotically dreamy aroma I remember from Iran, but it's still first-rate, certain to please west-side carnivores. And there must have been a pound of beef on this $8.95 plate, the most expensive item here. I do wish it had come with basmati rice, a perfumed variety that is an Iranian staple. American rice is pretty pallid in comparison, but the kitchen does as well as it can with it. The whole grilled tomato alongside is an authentically pleasant touch. Shish kebab is another way to get a hearty beef kick. The version here sports thick, juicy chunks of marinated meat, much more tender than you'd have a right to expect at these prices. The skinless, boneless chicken kebab excels because the Middle Eastern marinade moistens the skewered fowl and furnishes some added flavor zip. This substantial platter provides plenty of tasty animal protein without a cholesterol overdose. And like all the plates, this one comes with fresh pita bread and a better-than-average salad, topped with feta cheese and spunky yogurt dressing. However, Shish Kebab House doesn't do either sticklers for authenticity or folks just interested in good taste any favors, by offering those repulsive gyros that infest almost every Valley Middle Eastern restaurant. Forget the fact that you're about as likely to encounter this odd-textured, rotisserie-spun, processed meat in a Tehran restaurant as you are to find moo shu pork. And even though it's okay to take liberties with the menu, there's no reason to do it with this truly awful product. It's got a clearly synthetic taste and feel. No Middle Easterner would stand for it, and neither should west-siders. I also missed sipping mint tea or Turkish coffee after the meal. Somehow, a Diet Coke or decaf doesn't have quite the same flair. But you can get zoolbia, an incredibly sweet Iranian fried-dough confection with a six-month shelf life, a million calories and absolutely no nutritional value. Shish Kebab House has no pretensions. It's a neighborhood place delivering good stuff at good prices. I wish it were in my neighborhood. Samyra's Lebanese Cuisine, 713 East Mohave, Phoenix, 252-9644. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Without a menu in your hands, you'd never guess Samyra's serves Lebanese food. The radio is tuned to the oldies station. Samyra's own sketches of birds and landscapes line the walls. There's not a tourist poster or Arabic inscription in sight. Samyra told me she's been dishing out lunch in this plain South Phoenix spot for 16 years. "I still don't make any money," she sighed good-naturedly. It's not the food that's keeping Samyra from early retirement. Most everything here has a distinctive Levantine aroma and taste. Tabbouleh, fashioned from bulgur wheat and finely chopped parsley, has a particularly zesty lemon-mint touch. Scooped up on lettuce leaves or a pita roll, it's a tempting noontime starter. So is the outstanding baba ghanouj, a rich, thick eggplant pur‚e. Samyra offers several of the usual Middle Eastern culinary suspects: shish kebab, kafta, kibbe, falafel. But she also whips up dishes that the gyro-spinning parlors shy away from. Fasoolia, for example, brings broad beans simmered with lamb served over rice. Not too many Americans make beans the centerpiece of lunch, but this deftly seasoned dish could start a trend. Koosa is another well-fashioned option. Samyra hollows out a zucchini and stuffs it with diced lamb, rice and pine nuts. Pour the fragrant homemade tomato broth over this Lebanese treat, and you can almost hear the bombs falling in Beirut. Malfoof is a Lebanese version of stuffed cabbage. Samyra sold us on it one lunchtime by remarking that she'd had some good cabbage to work with. You get three cylinders filled with lamb and rice. If you're thinking that lamb and rice are essential parts of Samyra's repertoire, you're right. Her shish kebab features tender chunks of barely seasoned charbroiled lamb, served with rice and green beans. Kibbe is a mix of cinnamon-scented ground lamb and cracked wheat, goosed up with pine nuts and onions. Like at Shish Kebab House, Samyra also doesn't bother with Middle Eastern beverages. At least she throws a mint leaf along with a teabag into the teapot. While the quality of the fare isn't keeping Samyra out of the big money, it may be that her price-to-portion ratio is scaring repeat business away. Servings are small, sometimes way too small. The tabbouleh, for example, couldn't have consisted of more than a few tablespoons, and it went for three bucks. Shish kebab goes for $9.75, which should have brought us a heartier pile of rice and vegetables, and a few extra pieces of lamb. And why didn't the malfoof come with rice? I like Samyra's food. Let's have some more of it.
Salam's Market & Deli, 616 South Forest, Tempe, 921-0443. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week.
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It's a bit of a stretch to call Salam's a market and deli. A refrigerated case filled with soft drinks and a shelf with some tea and coffee don't make it an AJ's, or even a 7-Eleven. Located in the shadow of the Tempe mosque, it services the community of Muslims and starving students. There are customer-friendly patio tables, sprinkled by a potent misting system that encourages both lingering and malingering over strong, cardamom-scented Arabic coffee. Inside, patrons can amuse themselves by leafing through the rack of Arab-language newspapers or by watching television. The fare is basic, nonthreatening Middle Eastern, served by affable people at student prices. The combo appetizer sampler pretty much covers most of the munching territory. Falafel, a mix of deep-fried ground fava beans and chickpeas, is the clear standout. Just as clearly, stuffed grape leaves brought up the rear. These tough, dry morsels tasted as if they had been wrapped about the time Sadat flew to Israel. Serviceable tabbouleh, hummus and feta cheese round out the platter. When I caught sight of shawarma on the menu, my heart leapt in anticipation. Properly made, shawarma is a revelation: gloriously tender layers of meat, cooked to slow-spinning perfection over a low rotisserie flame. (Shawarma is what gyros try so miserably to duplicate.) Alas, Salam's version is shawarma in name only. Beef shawarma here is skillet-grilled rib eye steak, adorned with onions and peppers. It's perfectly fine, unless your gastric juices had already started to flow, expecting the genuine article. Chicken shawarma is fashioned the same way. When I expressed my disappointment, the counterman indicated that they might be getting a real shawarma unit soon. Let's keep our fingers crossed. In the meantime, sizzling garlic chicken is a good alternative, made with lots of marinated chicken chunks, peppers and grilled tomato. Lamb is also nicely done. Luleh kebab is a skewer of ground lamb, lightly seasoned. Kafta is kind of a Middle Eastern hamburger, ground lamb freshened with lots of onions and parsley. And while the lamb hunks in the shish kebab aren't quite as tender as I expected, there is more meat on this platter than you could probably buy retail for the same $6.95. Tempe residents can do a lot worse than pass a languid summer evening on Salam's misted patio, armed with a falafel sandwich, a demitasse of Arabic coffee and a good book. Sometimes, life is not only good, it's also cheap.