I stumbled on Mão Dupla restaurant during my first visit to Brazil in 2014. Tucked deep inside the maze of crisscrossing cobblestone streets in the Pelourinho, Salvador’s historic district, I found myself drawn there one day as I wandered around, wide-eyed, hungry, and just a little lost.

Restaurants abound in the Pelourinho. There is no escaping this fact, particularly with the multitude of ambassadors lining the streets, calling out to wanderers and passersby, menus in their outstretched hands, hoping to lure the hungry and thirsty to partake of their own restaurant’s culinary offerings. All I knew was that I wanted to try a good moqueca—the quintessential Bahian seafood stew, made with coconut milk and dendê oil.

I bypassed several of the menus being waved beneath my nose, ambling idly along, unsure of where or how to find that moqueca. Finally, on a quiet corner at the end of a street I would spend hours trying to find again (that’s another story), I accepted a gentle and friendly invitation to dine at a restaurant that boasted a fine moqueca.

The restaurant was Mão Dupla, and its warm, effervescent owner, Sandra Regina Souza Leite.

Sandra herself greeted me as I sat at one of the outside tables. I was traveling by myself, and her warm welcome ushered me in like a long lost friend. She chatted with me, fussed over the placement of my table on the uneven cobblestone street, and I found myself relaxing, letting go of my travel-issue hyper-awareness, and simply leaning into the moment.

“What would you like to start with?” she asked, offering me a menu printed in Portuguese, English, and Spanish. She listened patiently as I explained in my still-halting Portuguese that I really wanted to try the moqueca.

With keen, observant eyes, she noted not only that I would need the half-portion of the moqueca (a full portion serves two people), but that I also needed conversation, companionship, connection. And so, with her signature effervescence and cheer, she delivered: a steaming moqueca platter complete with sides of black-eyed peas, rice, pirão, and farofa. A feast fit for a royal party of one.

Andconversation that delighted my nerdy sensibilities: the history of slavery in Salvador, stories behind ancient structures and buildings, the evolution of the Pelourinho over the years. She also showed me the remnant of a trunk—actually a whipping pole—used for punishing slaves, given to her by her grandmother who had been a slave. An actual slave, not a descendant.

I learned more from her in one afternoon than I had in my previous four days in Salvador. And by the time I finally left, my stomach and spirit happy, I knew I would be back again.

——-

You could say Sandra herself stumbled on Restaurant Mão Dupla. It wasn’t as if she always wanted to become a restaurateur. The early part of her life didn’t leave much room for dreams and future plans.

She married and had her first child when she was 13 years old. “We grew up together,” she says of her children, laughing self-consciously, a hint of vulnerability in her expression. “But we were always together. Always close.”

Fourteen years later she left her husband. Simply took her three children—and nothing else—and walked out. In the words left unspoken, the years skipped over in the telling of her story, the glimpse of a shadow appearing briefly in her eyes, you can sense suffering and pain. A touch of anger.

She left with nothing. No money, no household items, no skills. “I didn’t know how to do anything other than cook. Absolutely nothing. And when I say absolutely nothing, I mean absolutely nothing!”

What she did have was a fierce, fighting spirit, refusing to allow herself or her children to be diminished in any way. And a rock-hard determination to do whatever it took to keep her children safe and healthy.

“I knew it was going to be challenging,” she says of her decision to leave. “I knew I was going to face difficulties. But I was ready.” She had reached a point in her life, as many of us do, where the choice to stay with the known and familiar generated far more pain than the choice to move forward into the unknown.

She recalls those moments just after walking out, moments filled with grinding anxiety and fear: “I had to believe in myself. I told myself, ‘The worst I’ll hear is NO. And I’m prepared for NO. If I get a YES, then I’ll jump for joy!’”

It was this message that settled and comforted her as she set about building a new life from scratch, for herself and her children.

The options, Sandra recalls, were frighteningly limited for a newly single woman with three young children and no marketable skills to speak of.

Undaunted, she decided to try for an internship in order to build some skills. With this in mind, she attended a classical music concert hosted by Coelba, the state-run energy company, in hopes of connecting with a human resources representative.

As it turned out, fate had a different outcome in mind.

She struck up a conversation with the gentleman seated next to her, eventually explaining her main purpose for being at the event. Curious, the gentleman probed, wanting to get at the core of this young woman’s character.

“What are your skills? What do you do?” he asked.

To which Sandra responded with typical candor: “Nothing. I don’t have any special skills. But I can learn. I can learn anything.”

“You want to learn? You really, truly want to learn?”

“Yes. I really, truly want to learn.”

“Then be at my office first thing tomorrow morning.”

And she showed up—the next morning, and the morning after that. For the next ten years she showed up for this gentleman, Geraldo, of the Fundação Cultural da Bahia, who turned out be her friend, colleague, supporter, cheerleader, and boss, who gave her a chance to prove herself, establish herself in ways even she hadn’t imagined.

Her eyes sparkling with pride and fondness, Sandra recalls how Geraldo, still skeptical about what she could actually produce for the Fundação Cultural, sat back in speechless surprise when she managed to confirm three shows for him in her first week at work. By the end of her second week she had shows confirmed for the entire month.

This woman with no marketable skills to speak of had surpassed all expectations.

Several years after starting to work with Geraldo, another door opened.

A friend offered Sandra a chance to operate her own restaurant. She hesitated for a minute—she had no restaurant experience to speak of. But there was only one answer for a woman who had already faced down and conquered a host of challenges.

Restaurant Mão Dupla was born.

Holding firm to her commitment to Geraldo, she worked days at the Fundação Cultural, and nights at the restaurant. Fourteen to sixteen hour days, seven days a week, until the death of Geraldo in 2002.

After his death she decided to focus exclusively on the restaurant, channeling her passion, determination, and strength into creating a business her customers would love.

At 52 years old now, she has maintained Restaurant Mão Dupla for nearly 20 years, steering it through highs and lows, through times of prosperity and scarcity. She has managed to keep it going even as the Pelourinho, once a bustling, thriving source of culture and entertainment for tourists and locals alike, began to experience a significant decline over the last eight years. She and her employees watched with heavy hearts as one business after another closed their doors, as the number of tourists passing through dwindled.

But in spite of these trends, she still welcomes all her customers with her signature mile-wide smile and generous warmth. She still holds to her commitment to her customers: treating them like royalty, providing the kind of attention and service that resonates.

And as a result, Mão Dupla has become a restaurant with a loyal following, whose customers return after months and years, twisting and turning through the streets of the Pelourinho in pursuit of Sandra’s special touch.

—-

One year after my first visit to Salvador and Mão Dupla, I found myself once more caught up in the maze that is the Pelourinho. I was starving and thirsty, and my questionable sense of direction led me in circles. Again. But I was determined to find Restaurant Mão Dupla.

Stuffing myself to the brim with moqueca was one of my main purposes for returning. I did promise myself I would be back. The other was to tell her about this new project idea I was developing, and to invite her to be a part of it.

As I finally found the right street and approached the restaurant, I wondered if she would remember me. One year passed and hundreds of customers come and gone, the memory of a lone young lady in search of food and company would likely be a faint blur, at best.

Sandra looked at me as I drew closer, and I could see a hint of recognition in her eyes.

“Do you remember me, Sandra?” I asked as I leaned in to hug her. “From last year?”

And of course she did, even down to the dish I ordered.