Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland is one of the best tiki bars in the world. It might not be the best tiki bar in its own town, though. Anaheim is also home to Strong Water, one of the most beautifully designed bars I’ve ever seen. It unites everything you expect from a top notch tiki bar with a unique, elaborately constructed theme, and the result is almost magical. It’s a must-visit for any fan of tiki culture or themed spaces.
When you arrive at Strong Water (reservations are recommended), a host or hostess will explain the concept to you before taking you to your seat. You’re not entering a bar, they’ll tell you, but the Clementine, a sunken pirate ship full of treasure—primarily of the intoxicating kind. The main room looks like the cargo hold of a ship at the bottom of the ocean, and in the back there’s a smaller room designed like the captain’s quarters. Everything looks weathered and tarnished, like it’s some long forgotten place you’re just now rediscovering. It’s definitely not your typical bar, and also doesn’t stick to the cliches of tiki bars.
That last bit is notable, as the classical approach to tiki bars is a form of cultural appropriation inherently linked to colonization. Some of the best tiki bars in America today consciously try to avoid the stereotypical trappings and cultural caricatures of the old-school tiki scene, and that’s a movement that should be applauded. With its gorgeously designed nautical atmosphere, Strong Water still has that calming and transportative sensation you hope for from a tiki bar, and it does it all without turning anybody’s culture into a cartoon. (I need to incriminate myself here: although I fully recognize and understand the problematic nature of tiki bars, I also still really enjoy them, and find them to be comforting evocations of a peculiar strand of mid-century American culture from my grandparents’ time. I do think it’d be best if anybody opening a new tiki bar in the 2020s avoided the problematic imagery and cultural exaggeration of the past, and it seems like that should be common sense today.)
Atmosphere is a crucial part to any successful tiki bar, but obviously the drinks are just as important. Fortunately, Strong Water’s owners put as much care and work into its drinks as they did its appearance. Of course it has the classics, including a faithful take on Victor Bergeron’s Mai Tai. You can get your fill of rum in a wide range of cocktails, from a creamy Painkiller to a cinnamon-spiced Jet Pilot. One fascinating drink I’d never tried before, but that apparently dates back 50 years, is the Buzzin’ Jungle Bird, which mixes gold and dark rums with a coffee-infused campari and hemp orgeat; it’s definitely not your typical tiki drink, and a good bit richer and heavier than the fruity drinks you’d expect from a place like this, but it’s a great contrast to those dangerously sweet cocktails.
If you go to Strong Water, though, you need to branch out and try some of their original concoctions. (A good strategy: one from the past, one from today—after each Cobra’s Fang or Three Dots and a Dash, try one of Strong Water’s originals.) Their signature drink is the Zombie King, which comes in one of the most impressively gruesome tiki mugs I’ve ever seen. It forgoes the apricot brandy found in a traditional Zombie, swapping it out with a pimento dram with a strong taste of allspice. Mix that with three types of rum, some lime and pineapple, a bit of cinnamon, and both walnut and angostura bitters, and you have a delicious, hearty, and very alcoholic treat. If you didn’t already feel like you were at the bottom of the ocean, a couple of Zombie Kings would do the trick.
Allspice also takes center stage in another one of Strong Water’s showpiece drinks. I’m normally reluctant to order a non-rum drink at a tiki bar, but I couldn’t resist the Cannon Fire, which mixes up double oak bourbon, allspice dram, lapsang tea syrup, and blackstrap bitters, and then smokes the whole thing in apple wood right in front of you. So you get a show and a deeply satisfying smell of smoke along with your drink—what a bargain. It might not taste like a tiki drink, but the Cannon Fire is a rich, powerful cocktail that goes perfectly with the ragged splendor of the captain’s quarters.
With about two dozen cocktails on its menu, you’re guaranteed to find something you want to drink at Strong Water. If you want to take it a bit easy, there are beers from Hawaii’s Kona Brewing Company. And if you don’t drink alcohol and still want to enjoy the sensation of a tiki drink, there’s a small selection of mocktails that’ll give you the sweetness and flavor without the rum.
Strong Water also has a small but diverse menu of Asian-inflected dishes if you feel like a bite. With pickled chilies and Thai spices, the deviled eggs pack just enough sweet heat for you to notice, but without putting anybody who can’t handle spice at risk. The Loco Moco burger is deliciously over-the-top, with a Wagyu patty, spam, a fried egg, a tempura onion ring, and bone marrow gravy all in a Hawaiian bun. I loved every bite even if I could barely get through half of it. Longanisa cheese fries come with fondue cheese, crumbles of Filipino sausage, and more pickled chilies; they’re as tasty as they are messy. Other entrees include a grilled shoyu-ginger pork bowl with rice, bean sprouts, a sunny egg, and Thai chili dressing, and blackened mahi mahi with a pineapple-serrano salsa. And on Sundays there’s an all-day brunch menu with a number of different dishes. Like Strong Water itself, its food nods to tiki tradition while updating it into something more expansive, more modern, and more authentic.
Every good tiki bar should serve some kind of food, but at the end of the day the drinks and atmosphere are what will bring you in. Strong Water does both as well as any tiki bar I’ve ever been to. Along with the equally fantastic Tiki Tatsu-Ya in Austin, Texas, Strong Water points to the future that tiki bars should take while still embodying the vibe that makes people love tiki bars in the first place. If only every city had a spot as glorious as Strong Water.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.