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.