CANTON, China -- Rats are all over the "Jia Lu" Restaurant. Rats in the kitchen. Rats on diners' plates. Rats between their chopsticks.
There's braised rat meat with roast pork and garlic. There's rat in black bean sauce. There's crispy fried rat. There's stewed rat.
"Jia Lu" means "super deer," a classical Chinese euphemism for rats.
The 17-table restaurant is the only one in Canton, perhaps in all of China, specializing in what its English menu sensitively calls "vole."
Rats have long been eaten by some southern Chinese in hard times. A few other Canton restaurants still cook them up now and then. But the "Jia Lu's" rats are not just ordinary rats.
"Virus-free rats from the countryside," says one of the restaurant's four owners, Wu Li Juan, 30.
"Big, fat, plump ones with bright gray-colored fur -- that means they've been eating grain. We don't want anything about half dead. Our rats are very nutritious," she says.
Rat meat is high in protein and amino acids, claims a slick color pamphlet at the restaurant.
Eating rat supposedly prevents hair from turning gray and improves resistance to exhaustion, tension, allergies, premature senility and hardening of the arteries.
And as for the taste, says another "Jia Lu" owner, Zhou Kaiping, while digging into his own dinner, suspiciously not of rat: "People get a very strong impression from eating rat -- they never forget it."
There is little question about that.
So, gulp, here goes: A Westerner who sampled the cheapest rat dish on the "Jia Lu's" menu, bits of rat in a cup of rice for about 85 cents, found the meat to be greasy, gristly and tacky to the tongue.
It left an after-taste that, frankly, defies kindly description and that lingered far longer than desired.
"It's got a wild smell to it," says Chen Hong Wan, a young interpreter. "I think it's better if you put something in with it to cover it up."
As if all this weren't sufficiently unappetizing, there's the whole process by which the country rats are brought to the "Jia Lu's" tables.
The rats are flushed out of their burrows in peasants' fields with smoke or water.
In a mercifully dark alley behind the "Jia Lu," they're drowned in boiling water -- after which, their hides are simply pulled off while some are still reflexively kicking.
None of this is particularly novel for some Cantonese, who are famed for eating anything that walks, crawls, flies or swims -- dogs, cats,snakes, raccoons, monkeys, lizards, sea cucumbers, pigeons, worms, you name it.
Widespread belief here has it that each of these animals has its own medicinal qualities, a belief that has turned not a few Canton street markets into sort of carry-out zoos.
The "Jia Lu" has a sullen raccoon parked in a cage by its front door, ready to be ordered for supper. It also serves dog meat in cold, rainy weather. And its menu lists "vole with snake meat" -- a kind of double whammy for the Chinese palate.
The restaurant's owners, however, have drawn a firm, responsible line as to what they'll cook. "No endangered species," says Ms. Wu, which is more than some other Chinese restaurateurs can say.
Of course, rat is this restaurant's real racket. Though they've been ordering an average of 60 one-pound rats a week, its owners say, they're struggling to keep up with demand.
The culinary experience has even caught on with some of the more adventurous foreign residents in China, for whom dining at the "Jia Lu" has lately taken on a certain, for want of a better term, aura.
The restaurant's owners, once employees of state-run companies, opened their place two years ago. "We wanted to break the 'iron rice bowl'," says Ms. Wu, a former accountant, referring to China's dying system of guaranteed lifelong employment.
"But we're not capitalists," she says, barely concealing a guffaw. "We're still communists."
They're also laughing all the way to the bank. The "Jia Lu" is turning $500 to $600 a week in profits, its owners claim. That's big money in China, even split four ways.
What's more, watch out Ronald McDonald, here comes McRat.
"We've heard about franchises," Ms. Wu says, "and that's our goal. Of course, we haven't quite succeeded yet."