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Friday, December 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 42.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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The "T" doesn't stand for tasty

I'd been looking forward to Vietnamese food for days before we landed at T & M's Vietnamese Cuisine on Grand Canyon Drive after catching a cheap movie at Market Square. T & M's was almost deserted on Saturday evening at about 7 p.m. -- not a good sign.

But it was raining, and there was a tornado warning, and it was spring break, and the basketball game was on. Maybe that's why the place was like a mausoleum -- although a well appointed mausoleum with several big-screen televisions because it used to be a sports bar.

Or maybe it was on account of the food and the service. Our somewhat abrupt server (not Vietnamese herself) asked us if we were familiar with Vietnamese cuisine. As one of our table stated that he wasn't, she warned us that we should not be expecting Chinese food. A lot of people come in expecting Chinese food, she said, and it's nothing like that. Vietnamese food is much better and once having eaten it we would never go back to Chinese restaurants. Okay!

We started with an order of the spring rolls ($3.25) and an order of the classic (Vietnamese) egg rolls ($3). Vietnamese egg rolls, smaller than Chinese egg rolls and filled with a denser combo of pork, shrimp, mushrooms vermicelli noodles (and no cabbage), typically come with a sweet and sour dipping sauce of vinegar, sugar, fish sauce and marinated carrots, and yes, to my mind, you would never go back to Chinese egg rolls after tasting one.

T & M's were tasty and crisp -- no complaints. The spring rolls were large and filled with tender white meat chicken and whole shrimp. It could have used more cilantro, but no real problems. Unfortunately the meal went downhill from there.

Our entrees were all from the "rice plates" menu -- we didn't get any of the classic Vietnamese soup (pho) or any noodle dishes. We ordered broccoli beef ($10), catfish in caramel sauce ($13) and, after being advised against ordering the lemongrass chicken without its onions (because the onions are too integral to the dish to leave them out), sweet and sour chicken ($9). Astonishingly, both the beef broccoli and the sweet and sour chicken tasted exactly like Chinese food, and not good Chinese food at that. And if these aren't real Vietnamese dishes, perhaps they could be listed on a part of the menu called "Chinese dishes."

T & M's is happy to make any dish the way you like it -- to the level of spiciness, avoiding ingredients that cause food allergies, etc. -- according to our server. However when we ordered all dishes without onions because of an inveterate onion-hater dining with us, she suggested that we should maybe go ahead and order the entrees with the onions anyway because the way they're cooked, they really don't taste like onions. We opted not to take the chance.

Really, if the kitchen is willing to adapt a dish for you, it's not necessary for the wait staff to try to talk you out of your own food preferences.

We ordered the catfish in hopes that it would come close to the great sweet and spicy catfish we used to love at the long gone, and much missed, Viet Foods To Go on North Sherman Avenue. Not even close. Soul-crushingly lacking. The few pieces of catfish came as cross-sections, surrounded by slices of cucumber. It was probably the most successful of the dishes we ordered... but there just wasn't much to it.

Despite the dearth of clientele, our server failed to pay enough attention to the table to see us signaling that we needed a refill on rice.

Overall, the dinner brought to mind that old Woody Allen joke about the food being terrible -- "and such small portions."

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