Pho Keene Great: An exclusive, inside look

Published: Feb. 18, 2019 at 3:18 PM EST
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A new restaurant in Keene, New Hampshire, hopes to cash in on international attention because of its name. After a recent dust-up which went viral, the town and owners of a Vietnamese restaurant have come to an agreement.

Driving into Keene on a brilliant and unusually sunny February afternoon, you can feel the life in this college town of about 25,000.

And beneath a covered up storefront, there's a buzz and sparks of new life. Laughing through the chaos and construction is Isabelle Jolie, just weeks before her tentative March launch.

Humor is important to her. After all, her restaurant's name pretty much says it all. As long as you know that Vietnamese noodle soup -- spelled P-H-O -- is pronounced "Fuh."

"The product is pho, it's in Keene, and it's great food," Jolie said. "Just meet me at P.K.G. or Pho Keene Great."

From "Late Night with Seth Meyers" to hundreds of shares on Facebook, to periodic updates on your WCAX, the debate over the name and sign -- right next to Keene City Hall -- created a firestorm.

"So I got a lot of attention both positive and negative," said Keene City Manager Elizabeth Dragon, who was part of the back and forth with the restaurant over the sign. "It was difficult at times.

Each side disagreed about what could be displayed or not as the world of social media swooped in on Keene.

The city and the restaurant eventually found common ground, and in the end, Dragon admits it will be a boon for visitors. "It's gonna get people to Keene," she said. "I'm looking forward to having some new food choices right here at city hall."

Reporter Galen Ettlin: The name controversy put your restaurant on the map for the whole world to see. What was that like, in your words, can you describe that situation.

Isabelle Jolie: We had no idea that it would explode to where we are today. Even people in Hanoi, North Vietnam, know about us.

And as a permanent sign rises, so does public interest.

"Kind of a good pun, play on words and stuff," said Joe Galliger.

"I thought it was funny," said another passerby named Cindy.

After years of planning, Jolie's vision is coming together.

Reporter Galen Ettlin: Are you going to be in the kitchen, out front, or both?

Isabelle Jolie: Hopefully I'll be back there cooking.

And while her kitchen in downtown isn't ready yet, the food is her focus, with well-traveled recipes from her family, which escaped the fall of Vietnam in the '70s, when she was just a toddler. The traditions and passion for cooking were given to her. "I've dreamed about this day. And that fear--lending strength--makes me fierce," she said.

Strength to get through a difficult last few years. "My sister Trang was diagnosed with Lupus," Jolie said. "She couldn't hold down a job... I said to her, we're going to open a little place, and you can work as long as you want... and to make a living, and not be judged... I don't know why I still cry about it. It was for Trang and I didn't want to do it... and so she said, no, you have to do this."

Trang died in 2016 and Jolie opened a food truck to carry on the memory. Now with business partners behind her, the real vision of a full restaurant is coming together on the sunny boulevards of Central and Main, and under an international spotlight.

Reporter Galen Ettlin: Light at the end of the tunnel, how does that feel?

Isabelle Jolie: There's a lot of fear but it's a good kind of fear... It's the kind that says, 'Yeah, it's gonna happen,' and I'm gonna rise to this challenge.