As a Buffalo native in Washington, I really miss only one thing. It's not the arctic wind chill or the lake-effect snow. And it's certainly not the football frustration. It's Buffalo's culinary claim to fame: the chicken wing. Give me one of those fiery, hot-sauce-soaked darlings slathered with chunky blue-cheese dressing and I'm blissful. They're messy, unsophisticated and hopelessly bad for you all in one delicious package. Oh, how I miss them! When I started college in a small Ohio town surrounded by cornfields, I had no idea I was in for four years of wing deprivation--mostly because I'd never thought of wings as a Buffalo phenomenon. After all, we didn't call them Buffalo wings, they were just chicken wings. I figured everyone had them. I was wrong. Very wrong. Except for the emergency rations that my family occasionally brought from Duff's, a Buffalo-wing institution, I lived a wingless existence between the ages of 18 and 22. Pepper poppers, nachos, mozzarella sticks and potato skins simply could not fill the void. Those were The Hungry Years. Prospects brightened when I moved to Washington. I knew, in this city of "people from somewhere else," there had to be at least one bar or restaurant that catered to the Buffalonian palate. So I devoted many a happy hour to wing-sampling and beer-drinking. Of course, when I began finding good wing joints, the exploration slowed somewhat, as repeat visits were required, sometimes weeks in a row. Still, the project crawled (and continues to crawl) steadily on. THE CRITERIA Distinctions must be made between a real Buffalo wing and the bastard cousin that so often slips onto the menu in these parts. Mistake No. 1: The Barbecue Bumble. For whatever reason, when Buffalo wings traveled south, their trademark hot sauce didn't make it past the New York State line. Apparently, this didn't trouble local wing purveyors, who simply poured on their favorite regional sauce instead. As a result, Washington ended up with a legion of wings smothered in sticky, sweet barbecue sauce or some equally inappropriate derivative. While barbecue may be just the thing for ribs, pulled pork or meatloaf, it has absolutely no place on a self-respecting Buffalo wing. Mistake No. 2: The Fried Chicken Masquerade. A properly prepared Buffalo wing should be deep-fried in the buff. Some wing cooks can't help themselves, however, and they cake on flour or bread crumbs and cook it up like fried chicken. Inevitably, the taste and texture clash. Add sauce to a breaded wing and, instead of crisp and piquant, you get mushy and ambiguous. Wings can't be, on the one hand, homey comfort food and, on the other hand, packing a sinus-clearing punch. In addition to these two blatant mistakes, there are dozens of subtler ones. Usually the sauce just doesn't taste quite right. Maybe it has a Mexican essence or a Chinese-style zing. Sometimes the problem is lack of sauce. I've eaten would-be wings that are completely naked, save for a sprinkling of cayenne pepper. What all these ersatz wings have in common is the desire to be hot and spicy like their Buffalo counterparts, without the benefit of a good recipe or the right ingredients. Even if the sauce and cooking method are perfect, one last problem can dampen an otherwise good wing experience: when wings come without their blue-cheese dressing accompaniment. Worst is when they come with nothing at all. There's nothing to calm a mouth-burning bite except water or beer, both of which just spread the heat around instead of squelching it. A lesser infraction is the Ranch Dressing Switcheroo. Ranch may pass muster in the tongue-cooling department, but it's a bland alternative to pizzazzy blue cheese. THE RESULTS All told, I've covered about 20 bars and restaurants in the area--most downtown, a handful in Dupont Circle, a few on Capitol Hill, the rest in the Maryland suburbs or Baltimore. Stops have included the Big Hunt, Lucky Bar, Madhatter, Sign of the Whale, Hawk and Dove, Stetson's, Ha' Penny Lion, Tequila Grill, My Brother's Place, Samantha's (now defunct,) the Crow Bar (at the old location), Dubliners, the Front Page, Buffalo Billiards, J. Paul's, a Friendly's restaurant, a Chili's restaurant, Cluck University, Hard Times Cafe and Bill Bateman's Bistro. Of these, Bill Bateman's in Baltimore was the clear winner, though you have to know what to order. Bill's original Buffalo wings are good, but not very saucy. For a saucier and, by the same token, hotter version, order the Atomic Wings. These are easily the best Buffalo wings I've had outside of Buffalo. Luckily, Bill Bateman's outposts are coming to both Fairfax and Montgomery counties. I've also had respectable wings at the Big Hunt, Mister Days, J. Paul's, Front Page, Hard Times Cafe (they're called Texas Wings, but I couldn't tell the difference) and the Ha' Penny Lion (on a good day, they were the biggest wings I've ever seen, nicely coated with hot sauce; on a bad day, they were runtish wings drowning in a sweet sauce). The worst wings I've had were at Cluck University in College Park. We got the medium-hot variety, which came in a thick, goopy barbecue-like sauce with just a twinge of spice. The disappointment was all the greater because the sign on Cluck U's storefront claimed the "Best Buffalo Wings in the World." I also found inferior Buffalo wings at "Buffalo Billiards" (dry, shriveled wings with no dressing of any kind), Lucky Bar (barbecue sauce) and the Hawk and Dove (a breaded version with barbecue sauce). Friendly's wings deserve a mention, if not for their flavor, then for their unearthly orange color. Among the rest, there are a slew of forgettable chicken wings. None were horrendous, but none were distinctive enough to lodge in my memory much longer than it took to eat them. Despite all the false leads and wrong turns, I'm confident that Washington will someday prove itself a wing-worthy town. For now, I'll settle for the handful of reliable wing establishments I've unearthed and the knowledge that I won't have to wade through snow drifts to reach them. BUFFALO WINGS GET A SPORTING CHANCE Because wing-eating and sports-watching are a such natural match, we decided to bring our "Buffalo Wing Challenge" to sports bars around Washington. We found an impressive spectrum out there, ranging from surprisingly authentic to one-is-enough rotten. (None was as good as the wings we found at Bill Bateman's in Baltimore.) But, deep in the mass of bizarre Buffalo-wing adaptations, the real thing can be found. We discovered our top local choices at The Rock and Mister Days. As for the rest, you make the call. * The Rock Sports Bar and Restaurant 717 6th St. NW; call 202-842-7625. If you're looking for great Buffalo wings in the heart of Washington, go to the Rock. They are deliciously hot, but not so hot that you'll down an entire drink trying to cool your mouth. * Mister Days Sports Rock Cafe 1111 19th St. NW (in alley); call 202-296-7625. Another great example of real Buffalo wings. The sauce is tasty, and abundant enough to make wing-eating properly messy. One caveat: Mister Days' wings are served with ranch dressing, but servers will substitute blue cheese if you ask. * Grevey's Restaurant and Sports Bar 8130 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church; call 703-560-8530. The wings here have the right sauce and the right dressing, but are far from inspired. A hotter sauce with a bigger flavor would serve them well. Still, Buffalonians will be happy at Grevey's, "Home of the Buffalo Bills," where sections of the restaurant are reserved for Bills fans on game days. * Velocity Grill 601 F St. NW; call 202-347-7780. The wings were okay, but nothing to write home to Buffalo about. The sauce was an acceptable approximation of the real thing, but something was missing. Maybe that's why there was a peppery dry rub underneath. * Champions--The American Sports Bar and Restaurant 1206 Wisconsin Ave. NW; call 202-965-4005. They claim to have the "Best Buffalo Wings In Town," but a more accurate boast might be "Best Buffalo Wings in the Building." The sauce has the right basic flavor, but is so bland, it hardly tantalizes the taste buds. If these were really the best in town, wing fans would be in trouble. * R.J. Bentley's Restaurant 7323 Baltimore Blvd., College Park; call 301-277-8898. We couldn't figure these wings out, in fact, we thought we'd misordered. They are called spicy buffalo wings, but were naked deep-fried wings without a speck of sauce or a hint of spice anywhere on the plate. They weren't bad-tasting per se, just un-Buffaloed. * Chatter's Rock 'N Sports Cafe Ramada Inn Bethesda, 8300 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda; call 301-656-2151. Among the worst wings I've ever had, they were coated with soggy breading and an unappetizing spicy tomato glop. To add insult to injury, the meat was tough and dry. DUFF'S WING RECIPE (Makes 20 wings) According to Ron Duff, the owner of Duff's, a Buffalo institution, this is how the restaurant has been making its wings since 1969. Duff's sells between 5,000 and 6,000 pounds of chicken wings a week. Duff uses Frank's Hot Sauce, but feel free to use your favorite brand. 2 cups hot red pepper sauce, such as Tabasco 2 tablespoons butter (or more to taste) Vegetable oil, as needed 20 chicken wings (about 2 pounds) Over low heat in a pan large enough to hold all the chicken wings, heat the hot sauce and butter until the butter has melted. Stir to combine well. Meanwhile, in another pan, heat enough vegetable oil to deep-fry the chicken wings. Fry them until they are extremely crispy and overdone. Toss the chicken wings in pan with the hot sauce mixture. Let the wings sit for 3 or 4 minutes, then drain and serve with blue cheese dressing. Per wing (without blue cheese dressing): 80 calories, 4 gm protein, trace carbohydrates, 7 gm fat, 17 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 172 mg sodium, 0 gm dietary fiber CAPTION: Buffalo Wings with their classic accompaniment of blue cheese dressing. ec