Float like a butterfly, eat ribs like a bee? Alex Casey investigates a Dominion Road mystery.
Nestled within an unassuming block of shops on Auckland’s Dominion Road, right between the tanning shop and the Ministry of Social Development, is a small Indonesian restaurant that boasts an extremely heavyweight celebrity endorsement. “The best grilled ribs I’ve ever taste..!!!” the large sign reads. The reviewer? Muhammad Ali, generally regarded as the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time and one of the most important sporting figures of the 20th century.
He is also generally regarded as extremely dead.
In theory it is not impossible that Ali could have given his endorsement to Makassar Corner’s famous ribs. The boxer famously visited New Zealand in 1979 and caused a media storm. He is reported to have called a local headmaster “a weasel”, and sparred with an adoring crowd, including a woman who shrieked “show him how a Kiwi fights”. He took photos with babies in front of the library. He gave “short and one dimensional” answers to a sports reporter stationed at Wellington airport. He pulled out his signature centre-ring “shuffle” in the mayoral office in Upper Hutt.
In two crucial details from the time, Ali attended a charity fundraising dinner (ribs on the menu?) in Trentham, and then flew to Auckland (home of the famous Dominion Road) for an exhibition fight. Could it be possible that in 1979 he sampled Makassar Corner’s ribs and uttered a brief yet enthused endorsement that would ring across Dominion Road for decades?
Amir Amrullah, owner of Makassar Corner, laughs when presented this theory. “No. It’s not the boxer, but it is Muhammad Ali,” he says. “That name is actually one of our customers – when we first opened he came in and he tried the ribs.” Amrullah recalls asking him what he thought of the meal. The customer beamed and said “man, these are the best ribs I ever had.” He said “thank you, what’s your name?” The customer replied: “Muhammad Ali”.
Amrullah gestures around the restaurant, which is completely empty on a Wednesday afternoon but preparing for the dinner rush that starts shortly after 5pm. “Everything you see here I designed myself,” he says, “so when I wanted to write a testimony for a sign, I remembered one of my customers saying something nice and that his name was Muhammad Ali. People might think it is the boxer but no – it’s just one of my Muslim brothers up the street.”
Regardless of which Muhammad Ali uttered the praise, Amrullah was grateful for the endorsement. He moved to New Zealand in 2018 with his family, and took over the location in 2020 after graduating from the University of Auckland. With just him and his wife in the kitchen, the goal was to bring a taste of Makassar – the capital city of Indonesia’s South Sulawesi province – to Auckland. Menu favourites include sop konro (beef rib stew), martabak (a savoury stuffed pancake) and dadar gulung (sweet pancake with shredded coconut and palm sugar).
The restaurant opened in June 2021, a couple of months before Auckland’s lengthy lockdown began, which Amrullah admits was a “tough” time to start out in the hospitality industry. “We had a very good response, especially from the Indonesian community, a lot of them were supporting us,” he says. But when omicron arrived and Auckland was hurtled back into lockdown, Amrullah says Makassar Corner would not have survived had it not been family-run. “It’s only me and my wife, so we don’t have any hired staff,” he explains. “We run the shop like a family operation – when it is busier my son will come and help us.”
After lockdown, when they were able to open again for contactless delivery, and later for dine-in, Amrullah says a highlight was a visit from the ambassador of the Republic of Indonesia and his staff. They closed down the restaurant to host the 20-odd cohort. “He was very supportive of us as an Indonesian restaurant in New Zealand at the time,” Amrullah says. Any sign of local grillmaster Jacinda Ardern at Makassar Corner sampling the ribs? “Jacinda… I wish Jacinda,” Amrullah sighs. “Just the ambassador.”
At the very top of Amrullah’s wish list of celebrities who he’d like to visit Makassar Corner is rugby and league player turned boxer Sonny Bill Williams. “Hopefully when he is in Auckland he will come in,” he laughs. But with winter on its way, Amrullah says Makassar Corner is bracing for another long quiet period. “As a restaurant operator and part owners, we just try our best. It is difficult times, but we will try our best and try to survive.” Or, as the great Muhammad Ali (boxer) once said, “you don’t lose if you get knocked down – you lose if you stay down.”