Smile Politely

Sakanaya remains a stellar spot for sushi

A circular piece of fried sushi roll has a tower of raw tuna, minced jalapeno, roe, and a yellow sauce.
Crispy tuna at Sakanaya; Photo by Alyssa Buckley

A decade ago, Sakanaya opened in Campustown. Since 2013, restaurants beside, across, and all down Green Street have come and gone, but Sakanaya has remained. In 2019, we named Sakanaya one of the BEST new restaurants of the decade. The Champaign sushi bar persisted through the pandemic, though not without the loss of weekday lunch and (more tragically) their soy-garlic tempura chicken wings. Our last review of Sakanaya restaurant was from 2020: a social-distanced, masked pandemic pick-up order of sushi and those aforementioned delicious wings, and so it was time for a revisit.

The Green Street entrance to Sakanaya has vertical wooden planks and a black awning that reads Sakanaya beside a fish.
Alyssa Buckley

Located near the corner of Fourth and Green Streets, the Japanese restaurant’s tall wood panels stand out among Campustown’s concrete fronts.

A black brick wall has an illuminated blue fish.
Alyssa Buckley

Walking into the restaurant was as if we evaporated out of casual campus and into an elegant sushi hideaway. There were no self-serve ordering kiosks, QR code menus, or seat-yourself signs. A friendly host greeted us, walked us to a spot at the back of the dining room, and dropped real menus on the table.

A clear pitcher of water beside two metal cups of water.
Alyssa Buckley

A server gave us a carafe of water and two metal cups. We were thirsty for more than water, and thankfully, Sakanaya had more drinks. The drink menu had soda and tea but also a small selection of adult beverages: sake, beer, and wine by the glass — a rarity for a Campustown restaurant.

A bottle of pink sake beside two black handle-less teacups.
Sake at Sakanaya; Photo by Alyssa Buckley

We decided to split a bottle of Sayuri Nigori ($18) with our meal. The pink bottle came with two cute little cups. The cold sake was slightly sweet and silky smooth. I loved how it tasted in contrast to the spicy tuna we ate.

A circular piece of fried sushi roll has a tower of raw tuna, minced jalapeno, roe, and a yellow sauce.
Crispy tuna at Sakanaya; Photo by Alyssa Buckley

As an appetizer, we ordered the spicy tuna crispy rice ($8.50). This was seriously incredible and probably one of my favorite things I’ve eaten in Champaign-Urbana. It had it all: crispy rice, soft rice, raw tuna, fresh jalapeño, roe, avocado, and sauce. Under spicy tuna and toppings, the bottom layer was a brick of rice with two totally different textures. The center had steamed sushi rice, and the exterior was a thick layer of crispy rice fried super crunchy like a dense cracker, and it tasted crazy good. And then the fish! The spicy tuna was really yummy with the little bits of avocado, minced jalapeño, and salty pops of roe. Sakanaya translates to fish market in Japanese, and there’s a fish logo for the restaurant, so it made sense that this fish was top-notch.

This appetizer spicy tuna crispy rice was utterly delicious. I would order two next time, so I don’t have to share and can eat it all myself.

Five green dumplings with brown fry-marks on the outside in a black-and-white marbled plate with a built-in sauce circle filled with a dark dipping sauce.
Vegan gyoza at Sakanaya; Photo by Alyssa Buckley

Sakanaya’s menu had a whole page of vegetarian and vegan dishes, and I felt inspired to eat something vegetarian because of that, so we ordered the vegan gyoza ($6). The five green dumplings had a filling of potato, tofu, and edamame, seasoned well. These gyoza were soft and chewy with a slight golden crispiness on the wrapper. They didn’t have much textural interest, and I kind of wish there was some crunchy carrot or cabbage for contrast to the softer elements, but the flavor was excellent.

Sakanaya is the it-place for sushi, and the restaurant’s menu had lots of choices: nigiri, sashimi, 11 classic rolls, 21 signature rolls, 14 vegetarian rolls, sake dan, and poke bowls. We ordered two rolls and some noodles to share.

A maki sushi roll with raw fatty tuna with a yellow sauce and raw jalapenos on a black plate.
Sunset roll at Sakanaya; Photo by Alyssa Buckley

The first roll we ordered was the sunset roll ($14), a signature roll made with raw tuna, cilantro, jalapeño, and cucumber. Each uramaki slice was a really big bite of really delicious tuna, accented with fresh cucumber and heat from fresh jalapeño and spicy sauce. The red, fatty tuna was mild in taste and delicate in texture — and luckily, there was so much in every bite. The roll’s rice, cilantro, and jalapeño pepper served Mexican flavors with Japanese fusion, and it tasted delicious.

The volcano has raw tuna, salmon, and two sauces on top of a maki roll.
Volcano roll at Sakanaya; Photo by Alyssa Buckley

We ordered a second roll called the volcano roll ($19), one of the menu’s four deep-fried sushi rolls. Sakanaya’s volcano had tuna, crab, and avocado wrapped in nori and rice, then deep-fried and topped with raw red tuna, raw white tuna, and raw salmon, housemade crunch, eel sauce, and the same creamy, spicy sauce as the sunset roll. The bright red mountain of fish looked a little like a volcano, and the contrast was everything: warm with cold and crunchy with soft. I loved the roll’s deep-fried, crispy edge opposite the raw fish. It was kind of like fish bruschetta: crispy slices of sushi topped with small cuts of fresh tuna and salmon.

A bowl of beef yaki udon noodles in a white and black bowl.
Beef yaki udon at Sakanaya; Photo by Alyssa Buckley

Finally, I wanted to order something other than sushi for this review, so we ordered the beef yaki udon ($18), too. Wow, was this dish delicious! The marinated beef had a lightly smoked, grilled-barbecue flavor, and because it was sliced paper-thin, the beef clung to the udon. Everything was dressed in a housemade sweet and savory sauce, making the dish super flavorful but not spicy. The noodles were long, thick, and so good. Softened onions, zucchini, mushroom, carrot, bell peppers, and sprinkle of fresh green onion added some complexity, but Sakanaya’s beef yaki udon was truly all about the delicious, salty-sweet beef and yummy, chewy udon, which were hard to resist.

The interior of Sakanaya restaurant has four empty tables before a dinner rush with spherical lighting above a table for two and the sushi bar.
Alyssa Buckley

Overall, our date at Sakanaya was exceptional. The sexy low lighting, the beautiful plates and cups, elegant chopsticks, excellent service, and intimate space all created an environment that elevated our eating experience. I already want to go back to eat more, different rolls — and get an encore of both the appetizer spicy tuna crispy rice and beef yaki udon. Our meal wasn’t much more expensive than other sushi spots in town. Sakanaya’s classic rolls ranged from $6 to $10 and signature rolls cost $12 to $21, which was cheaper than I expected given the ambiance, but I suppose on target for its location in Campustown.

Sakanaya was the first Champaign-Urbana restaurant that restaurateur Jin Park opened. He also opened the upscale Japanese restaurant Miga in Downtown Champaign, which closed during the pandemic (and is now Tenkyu), and Naya just down Green Street, which closed in 2022 and reopened as an Indian restaurant. Do not let Sakanaya close, people.

The stylish sushi restaurant is open for dinner six days a week and for lunch on Fridays and Saturdays.

The volcano has raw tuna, salmon, and two sauces on top of a maki roll.
Volcano roll at Sakanaya; Photo by Alyssa Buckley

Check out the restaurant’s website and Instagram for more information.

403 Green Street
T-Th 3:30 to 9 p.m.
F+Sa 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. + 3:45 to 9:30 p.m.
Su 3:30 to 9:30 p.m.

Food + Drink Editor / / instagram

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