From the outside, Family Market, a nondescript bodega in Richmond, might seem like an unlikely location for good seafood — let alone incredible ceviche. And yet, tucked in a corner past the compact aisles stocked with instant ramen, dish soap, and chamoy gummies sits Mariscos El Layo: a no-frills, mini kitchen serving surprisingly fresh, flavor-packed ceviches and aguachiles.
Years ago, owner Hilario “Layo” Martinez Leon started making these dishes, ones that paid homage to his Sinaloan roots. But it wasn’t until he spent a short stint in jail that he decided to turn his hobby into a business. “When I went to jail, I lost everything,” he says. “I used to make ceviche just for my friends and family when we gathered, and they’d be like, ‘Bro, you gotta sell this!’ Those are the words that were popping in my head sitting in that cell, so that’s what I did [when I got out].”
Borrowing $40 from his brother, he made the trek to the grocery store to gather the ingredients for his signature Sinaloan-style ceviche: freshly diced shrimp, tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, and cilantro — all marinated in his “special blend” of juices and spices, a recipe he spent four years tinkering with until it was perfectly bright and balanced. By the end of that first day, he’d sold out of everything he’d made. Layo reinvested his daily profits and slowly started to create a small, yet dedicated following on social media, delivering pre-ordered ceviches to daily designated neighborhoods in the Bay Area.
As his popularity grew, so did his menu. Soon, he added aguachiles, the signature dish from Sinaloa made with raw shrimp, cucumbers, and red onion submerged in a fiery chiltepin-water mixture. Each bite is simultaneously refreshing and addictively spicy. Arguably, Layo’s aguachiles are even better than the ceviche. (It’s almost impossible to get a cup as a walk-in on weekends — ordering ahead is key.)
“For me, it’s gotta be fresh — all the ingredients, it’s what makes it good,” he says. “My cousin, who has a shop in San Mateo, actually drives to L.A., to the border of San Diego and picks up the fresh seafood. They bring it to him from Sinaloa and he brings it back over here.”
Serving only the freshest means that he only makes a limited quantity every day, and he often sells out.
This April, he’ll be celebrating two years since he first set up shop in this corner kitchen of this Richmond bodega — and he continues to grow, paying homage both to his roots and his neighborhood. These days, his menu is more, as he describes it, “Richmond-style,” boasting a unique blend of traditional Sinaloan flavors and those of the Bay Area. Unprompted, regulars will tell you some of their other favorites: crisp, saucy raspberry-chipotle wings, mango-habañero wings, and ultra-cheesy “loco fries,” to which you can add freshly sauteed shrimp on top, if you want.
From here, he hopes to get back on the road slinging fresh ceviches, aguachiles, and the rest of his menu from a new food truck to bring the best of Mariscos El Layo to different parts of the Bay. And we look forward to seeing him pop up in even more unexpected places—and be pleasantly surprised all over again.
Mariscos El Layo inside Family Market (700 Pennsylvania Avenue in Richmond) is open Tuesday through Sunday from 1 to 8 p.m. Check Instagram for menu updates and additional information.