By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published May 28, 2012 at 9:02 AM

Name the biggest and most eclectic food court in the Milwaukee area. I bet you didn't think of the Milwaukee Public Market in the Historic Third Ward.

The market has dramatically remade itself since its 2005 debut, becoming a large and lively restaurant and bar that also offers coffee, candy, wine, baked goods, frozen custard, grocery items, flowers, tee shirts, packaged spices and kitchen gadgets. Many of the original merchants remain, but others have cycled in and out of the facility.

The second floor dining mezzanine inaugurated when the building opened has been augmented by stools and tables at three of the vendors' stalls – Margarita Paradise, St. Paul Fish Company, and Thief Wine Shop & Bar. Customers can dine in or take out at the market, and last Wednesday I went on a hunt for food that particularly appealed to me.

My expedition was purely subjective, following the quirks and whims of my palate, and the search illustrates the huge range of available edibles.

Walking through the Water Street doors on the west side of the building, I first stopped at Margarita Paradise, a satellite operation of a long established West Allis restaurant. Perch on one of the 14 bar stools – there is also a trio of two-top tables – and order a cucumber margarita accompanied by chips and one of the more than 20 home-made salsas offered. The avocado jalapeno sounded good to me.

Follow that up with the seafood burrito, filled with shrimp or fish. It's $9.95, with the option of adding rice and beans for another two bucks. Margarita Paradise's extensive selection of tequilas is available by the shot ($6 to $45).

If you are more of a wine sipper, Thief Wine Shop & Bar has plenty of it. It offers 2-oz. samples for $2.50 to $5.75, 5-oz. glasses for $5.50 to $11.75, carafes for $12 to $26, and wine flights for $9.75 to $12.25. A selection of beers from craft to Schlitz is available for $3 a bottle.

The Thief Wine bar seats 16, and another 14 persons can be accommodated at tables. A snack menu includes sauteed marcona almonds sprinkled with sea salt ($3.50), a Mediterranean olive plate ($6) and artisanal cheese plates ($9 and $11.50).

You won't find booze at Aladdin, but you can slurp a cool mango lassi ($3.75), and I am going for that. Aladdin serves Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine at the market. Lassi is a smooth yogurt-based drink containing Indian spices.

Aladdin features a build-a-pita bar that gives customers the opportunity to choose type of bread – flat or pocket – and fillings from three categories ($5.55). For example, you can select chicken curry salad from the first group, spinach spread from the second, and tomatoes, tabouleh and a roasted veggie mix from the third. Well, maybe that combination is a little weird, but you get the idea.

I would also buy some roasted red-pepper hummus to take home for later. I'm addicted to it.

Wandering over to the southwest corner of the market, I pay a visit to Cedarburg Coffee and Roastery. Although the beans are roasted right there, I am drawn to the baked goods, which are made back at the home office in Cedarburg.

A thick slab of "Best Ever Banana Pecan Bread" ($2.50) has caught my eye. Can it be as good as my sister's?

Another item intrigues me here. Cedarburg sells an insulated coffee travel mug with an imbedded chip that allows customers to load money right onto the cup. Just wave the mug in front of a reader when buying your coffee on the run.

Walking along the market's southern wall, I reach the Milwaukee Public Market outpost of the West Allis Cheese and Sausage Shoppe. Lots of cheese and sausage here, as well as other dairy products, gourmet crackers, flatbreads and such local delicacies as jars of Lakeside pickled eggs.

The staff is waiting to prepare a made-to-order sandwich or wrap, but I am in the mood for a couple of deli items. Pesto ranch pasta salad, at $6.99 a pound, sounds good for right now, and a bulky square of mac 'n' cheese ($4.99 a pound) would be good reheated for dinner. The mac is topped by an impressively fat layer of cheddar and some bread crumbs.

On to the Soup and Stock Market, which offers seven soups a day along with grab and go sandwiches and slices of quiche. About 100 varieties of soup are rotated through the stall, with chicken noodle and chicken and dumpling on the menu every day.

I have to try pulled pork barbecue chili with baked beans. The Soup and Stock Market has recently started selling its own cookies, baked at its Bay View headquarters.

Across the aisle, Sushi-A-Go-Go offers ready-made maki rolls and nigiri sushi, but don't be fooled by the vendor's name. You can also buy a Chicago dog or something called a Hawaiian Big Plate Lunch.

For $6.95, the big plate includes a choice of sandwich, a scoop of jasmine rice, and servings of pasta salad and a cole slaw that contains toasted sesame seeds and chopped peanuts. My sandwich selection is the Manapua, a sweet-bread pocket stuffed with pork in a barbecue sauce.

By this time, a few of you are asking, where are the salads? The Green Kitchen has them, along with imaginative fresh juice blends, and hot and cold sandwiches that emphasize veggies. I'm going with the Red Roxie drink ($4.50) because of the name and the combination of apple, beet, lemon and ginger.

Constructing your own salad from a plethora of goodies is popular here, but I am choosing the Caribbean Mango Salad because I know from past experience how tasty it is.

Romaine lettuce, tomatoes, red peppers, mandarin oranges, black beans, tortilla strips and chicken are bathed in a mango vinaigrette. Like the build-your-owns, this salad comes in $7.50 and $9.50 sizes.

At the east end of the market, the St. Paul Fish Company operates as a full scale seafood wholesaler, retailer and restaurant, seating 56 customers indoors and another 12 outside. How many other local eateries offer oyster po' boys ($10.95), smoked salmon on a stick ($3.95) or a calamari Caesar salad ($12.95)?

But the superstar entree of the Milwaukee Public Market and perhaps the best dining bargain in the city is the live Maine lobster dinner for $13.95. The lobster is between a pound and a pound and a half in weight, and it is served with french fries and coleslaw. The dinner cannot be carried out.

It's time for dessert, and there are choices. C. Adam's Bakery overwhelms the eyes with a gallery of the products produced by its ovens.

I'm going straight for the key lime pie ($19) because I know it favorably compares with Key West's best. A mini-sized version costs $5.

Competing for your sweet tooth is Kehr's Candies, the 82-year-old local chocolatier that also makes its own frozen custard for sale at the market. A rotating roster of 16 flavors is loaded into cones and cups, and I have to sample a single scoop ($2.59) of hot chili custard.

You read that correctly. The flavor consists of vanilla custard with chili flavoring. No meat.

Always thinking ahead, I stop at Breadsmith for a breakfast treat for tomorrow. A loaf of apple pie bread ($6.50) looks yummy.

That's it, folks. I've gone from lassi to lobster in a one-block stroll.

The Milwaukee Public Market's general hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. However, on weekdays Cedarburg Coffee and C. Adam's Bakery opens at 7 a.m., and Margarita Paradise opens at 8 a.m.

Thief Wine stays open to 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.