A deep dive into the nautical-inspired tiki bar Strong Water Anaheim

Strong Water Anaheim welcomes patrons with an eclectic ship-wrecked design that tells a story.
Strong Water Anaheim welcomes patrons with an eclectic ship-wrecked design that tells a story.
(Sarah King)

When you walk into Strong Water Anaheim you don’t simply cross the threshold into a kitschy tiki bar on Clementine Street. You embark on a journey into the bowels of a sunken ship. You begin in the alcove where your eyes need to adjust to the dimly lit bar, named for the rip currents that caused the Clementine to sink. At 1,884 square feet, the space is small, large enough to bring just 50 patrons aboard, but that number gets worked into the story too. The immersive bar is a testament to creativity, and every part of it, from the eclectic decor on the walls to the mugs the tiki cocktails are served in, is full of intention.

The concept of a sinking ship, said to have sank in 1884, comes from husband-and-wife team Ying Chang and Robert Adamson, the duo behind the Blind Rabbit, a popular speakeasy near the Packing House. Inspired by the Blind Rabbit’s successful Mahalo Mondays, the couple opened Strong Water in 2019, with Adamson as director of spirits and Chang as fleet commander.

Husband-and-wife team Ying Chang and Robert Adamson.
(James Tran / Valerie Durham)

“It definitely was our passion project that took us many years to collect and curate,” said Chang.

This year the bar earned recognition at the 2024 Tales Spirited Awards for “Best U.S. Bar Team – U.S. West” and “Best U.S. Restaurant Bar – U.S. West.” In April, Strong Water was named a 2024 James Beard Award nominee for “Outstanding Wine & Other Beverages Program,” the only establishment in Orange County to earn a nomination in any category.

Chang and Adamson have a combined 40-plus years of bartending and hospitality experience, but it is their dedication to the details that sets Strong Water apart.

Adamson maintains that good design has a good story, and his stories are inspired by the items he collected from Facebook Marketplace and other sources to outfit the bar. The atmosphere is part Robinson Crusoe and part Swiss Family Robinson, with a little Don the Beachcomber.

“The entire restaurant has been upcycled. We didn’t build anything new, we just used things that we could get,” said Adamson.

The Clementine, the story goes, now exists inside a lava cave, turned on its side with its interiors made from the debris of its wreck. The booths are made from old ornate bed frames and antique library tables. A series of exotic bird paintings that look like they came from the same artist are actually sourced from multiple suppliers. A pink flamingo, a set of toucans and a peacock painting fill out the parade of tropical fledglings.

“When I first got this peacock panting I drove all the way out to somewhere in Northern California, and I got there and it wouldn’t fit in my car,” recalls Adamson. “So I had to go back and get a different car, but it is beautiful piece.”

Strong Water Anaheim is a nautical-inspired “tik-easy” bar that plays into a ship-wrecked narrative.
Strong Water Anaheim is a nautical-inspired “tik-easy” bar that plays into a ship-wrecked narrative.
(Sarah King)

Each seat offers a different vantage point and therefore a different experience. A terrarium of birds is tucked above a particular table, visible only from that spot, for example.

“I didn’t ever want any part of the restaurant to feel like it was the worst seat in the house,” said Adamson.

Another coveted seat is one near the “Zombie King Grotto,” the water feature Adamson said every tiki bar is obligated to include.

“Every good tiki bar is supposed to have a blowfish, a water feature and colored lights,” Adamson said.

The grotto also serves as the inspiration for the Zombie King cocktail, a combination of coconut, dark and Demerara rums mixed with lime, pineapple, cinnamon and walnut bitters. The Zombie King of Balacombé is a legend told through a short film of impressive production value accessible on YouTube. QR codes on the menu link to Strong Waters’ other short films, a popular medium the couple uses to introduce new drinks and limited-edition mugs and tie them into elements of the bar.

The “Zombie King Grotto” water feature at Strong Water Anaheim.
The “Zombie King Grotto” water feature at Strong Water Anaheim.
(Sarah King)

The menu itself is a field guide of sorts, with 40 original, rum-based, stirred and zero-proof craft cocktails and helpful bits of tiki facts, like why tropical drinks are traditionally served over pebbled ice. There are classic rum cocktails like a mai tai and 3 Dots & A Dash, noted with an origin marker, saying who created it and where it was created.

“Did you know the Saturn cocktail, which is a very popular cocktail, was created in Huntington Beach?” Adamson asks.

Chang said while they know not every cocktail is meant for the casual drinker, they like to have a few deep cuts for industry folks and tiki heads.

“We have a lot of cocktail integrity, so everything from juice to syrup to spirit is handpicked to make sure that cocktail is delicious and well-balanced,” said Chang. “But we have a few that are handpicked for industry, for people that enjoy something a little different.”

The menu also lists the drinks made with Lost Voyage Hamilton Rum, Strong Water’s own spirit that won the bronze at the 2023 L.A. Spirits Awards.

The Asian-fusion food menu is overseen by executive chef Steve Kling, who presents dishes like mushroom mapo tofu, braised in tongue-numbing sichuan, furikake fries with spicy mayo and a Loco Moco burger stacked with a wagyu patty, Spam, fried egg and tempura onion ring.

Asian fusion dishes from Strong Water Anaheim executive chef Steve Kling.
(Sarah King)

Chang said that while tiki tends to be rum-driven, patrons will find a variety of spirits at Strong Water, along with vodka, gin, bourbon and tequila-based cocktails.

In fact, the Captain’s Quarters, a more intimate back room with a back bar, was originally conceived as a place for gin-only cocktails. Now you can enter the quarters for any kind of drink, as long as the red light is on above the door.

“Red over red is the nautical term for the captain is dead,” explains Adamson, “which means otherwise you wouldn’t be able to go into his estate room without asking his permission.”

In the backroom, a curio cabinet is filled with tiki mugs hand-selected by or gifted to Chang and Adamson, as well as original works of art commissioned to tell new stories. A painting of Adm. Horatio Nelson by a local artist, for example, was the inspiration for Strong Water’s Tappin’ the Captain mug, sharing the story of a captain said to have died while at sea. In order to give him a proper burial, the real-life admiral was stored in barrel of brandy — which sounds smart, until you learn that it wasn’t uncommon for the crew to tap random barrels while the captain was asleep to steal a bit of liquor.

“It is believed that when they got to their first port, he was completely exposed to the air because the crew had unknowingly drank the brandy from the barrel he was in,” Adamson said.

Strong Water Anaheim is a 2024 James Beard Award nominee for “Outstanding Wine & Other Beverages Program.”
Strong Water Anaheim is a 2024 James Beard Award nominee for “Outstanding Wine & Other Beverages Program.”
(Sarah King)

The legends, myths and tall tales not only put a creative spin on the menu but also create a way for patrons to connect with the concept.

“Our cocktail program is based off of stories and history because when you hear a little bit about how that cocktail was developed many moons ago, people almost get personally connected to it and feel they are part of the journey too,” said Chang.

In the years since Adamson and Chang’s own journey began, they are proud of what they have built together and grateful to see patrons squeeze into the ship’s tight quarters night after night.

“We hope we can continue to provide the community with this for years and years to come,” said Adamson.

Strong Water Anaheim displays nods to tiki culture and custom mugs.
(Sarah King)