The connection between the Tolentino family and Ohio is deepening.
While former Maryknoll standout Sage Tolentino plays and trains in Hamilton, his father is turning a new chapter into a business opportunity.
Grant Tolentino and nephew and recent CIA (Culinary Institute of Arts) graduate Aaron Kimura are opening a food truck: Dine-In Hawaiian. It’s a natural fit since Sage Tolentino committed to Cincinnati in July.
“It’s such a big open market here that it’s much needed. All of the local Hawaii businesses, they do so well,” he said.
Dine-In Hawaiian will be based in Hamilton and has approval to serve at Cincinnati Bearcats football games. The offerings in Hamilton include kalua pig, teriyaki chicken, fried rice, teriyaki burgers, loco moco and a deep-fried musubi with teri and aioli sauce.
Sage Tolentino’s favorite is the deep-fried musubi.
At the Bearcats’ home games, the food truck will serve up kalua pig tacos with pineapple salsa and aioli sauce, kalua pig sliders, teriyaki sliders and musubi.
Specials include kal bi, Korean fried chicken, chicken katsu and baked beans. Teri garlic fries and kalua pig fries with aioli garlic sauce are also on the menu.
“We’re fortunate that we’re able to get on the University of Cincinnati grid. They only allow a handful of food trucks or trailers to the football games,” Tolentino said.
Kimura was going to do an internship in Virginia before hearing about his uncle’s plan.
“The fried rice and teri chicken are mine, but I give him huge freedom to create what he wants. He’s trying to create this fusion. Everything he’s done is phenomenal,” Tolentino said. “We’re thinking of doing a stuffed salmon dish with teri and mayo sauce, and Portuguese sausage in the stuffing.”
Another nephew from the Big Island, Hunter Lonokapu, has helped with remodeling a house that Tolentino acquired in Hamilton.
“It’s great having family living with me and keeping me busy,” Tolentino said.
Kimura is handling social media, posting photos of succulent dishes. Tolentino grew up the son of a military chef, traveling to Germany, Okinawa and Texas as a child.
“We would always bring our culture with us. Wherever we go, if you’re from Hawaii, the Hawaiians, Filipinos, Japanese, they found you. There would be steamers and imu, manapua, laulau and palusami. My mom had a halau, more like a Polynesian revue. We’d do the poi ball dance, the haka, all the Polynesian dances and perform all over the world. Being raised around that culture, my mom and dad were always cooking for their halau and military folks. Just all the good homegrown foods,” he said.
He was also influenced by his grandparents.
“When my dad retired, we lived with my grandpa for a little while. My grandma would make hardcore Filipino food. Sari sari, dinuguan. I got inspired by her,” Tolentino said.
That led him to become a classic local-style cook, the kind who makes food out of love. At Maryknoll’s snack bar, Tolentino sometimes cooked. His fried rice bowls often sold out early.
“My wife didn’t know I could cook when we got married. I grew into cooking for my family, for graduation parties, baby parties, weddings,” he said. “She and I were thinking, how can I make money and be my own owner of a business and fit my schedule to Sage. Someone said, ‘Why not start a restaurant?’ ”
The prohibitive costs of a brick-and-mortar site led to the food truck. There is already a Hawaiian-style food establishment in Ohio that set the template. Kealoha Kitchen opened with a food truck and now has a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
“He said, ‘You’re going to kill it. Keep it small and grow from there,’ “ Tolentino said. “I’m just so blessed that my auntie are helping me fund the food trailer. They loaned me the money.”
The fit matters. The Tolentinos feel comfortable in Hamilton.
“The people down here, whenever I’m shopping or doing something else, they’re trying to figure out what nationality I am. I say I’m from Hawaii, Hawaiian-Filipino. There’s not that many Polynesians here, but the people are like people from anywhere. They love people from Hawaii and asking what I’m doing here,” Grant Tolentino said. “I’m here to support my son. I left a great job at the Hilton (Hawaiian Village). I was a director of engineering. I stepped out in faith.”