TAMPA – Forget the strip malls and the traffic and step into the bayou, a place where you can almost hear the crickets chirp, the alligators chomp, and the smell of barbecue fills the air.
It’s Hank’s, a catfish and barbecue restaurant at 8546 North Dale Mabry Highway, a block north of Waters Avenue. Hank Malouf, a Gaither High School graduate, has owned and operated the place for the 27 months and, even on a rainy Tuesday night, the place was packed with people licking their fingers after putting down a rack of ribs.
Malouf grew up in the restaurant business. Raised in Mississippi, he has a strong pedigree. He learned the business from his father who was a restaurateur. Malouf says that he knew all along that he wanted to be involved, especially once he learned he wouldn’t be making a living playing soccer.
He tried hard enough. After spending time at Jesuit High School, he moved on to Gaither and earned a soccer offer to play at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
Nine months later, after realizing that soccer wasn’t going to be a career, he came back to Tampa and refocused on the restaurant business.
“I grew up on catfish and Southern food,” Malouf said. “Cooking has always been my love and I always had the desire to open a restaurant. People I knew used to complain that there were no really good catfish restaurants in Tampa. I was always eating catfish and ribs growing up and things like collard greens, okra and hush puppies. No one had that. So I decided I would.”
He got into the restaurant helping his father run a pizzeria close to Hank’s location. When it came time to make the decision to run his own place, he decided it would be distinctly Southern.
“Working in a pizzeria is kind of easy,” Malouf said. “You pretty much have everything set up and ready and it isn’t that tough. When you run a place like this, it’s a whole different world. I go around the clock six days a week and if I am 15 minutes late, that’s like a whole day lost.”
He takes care of the details himself, with some help from his wife, Kelly, and his daughter, Charley, 4. He makes sure the food is fresh, the all-cotton tablecloths are clean, and the homemade cakes – his mother’s specialty – are top notch.
“This is an untapped market,” Malouf said. “People said we couldn’t survive as a restaurant and there was no market for it. We are proving them wrong. It’s been a lot of fun.”
He’s done it with no advertising.
“We have become popular all by word of mouth,” Malouf said. “If you serve quality food, they will come. We are unique.”