Barbecue in Kansas City is a Big Thing. This is the first place I've lived that has BBQ as a cooking tradition, so I am definitely not qualified to compare different styles of 'cue, but I've been to a number of BBQ places around the city - I think I'm qualified to compare those, at least.
There are several categories going into this review/comparison: price; crowded-ness; quality of the meat, sauce, fries, and beans; and general ambience. "Meat" here isn't going to include ribs, since I haven't tried them at all four shops I'm reviewing yet. First up is Jack Stack!
Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue
This is the most (well, only) upscale of the four restaurants I'm looking at. It's also the only one that's a sit-down, order-at-the-table restaurant. As you would expect, it's also the most expensive. Ultimately, the sit-down experience wasn't worth it. The sauce was excellent - not too sweet or salty, but very flavorful and a bit spicy. The beans were probably the best I've had - very obviously homemade, with slivers of meat floating in them. They had a very smoky flavor, and the beans had great texture and flavor. However, the meat was not great. At the time I thought the burnt ends were excellent, but later discovered (see below) that they were not - they're too tough and not "burnt" enough. I have a feeling they weren't real burnt ends.
The saving grace of Jack Stack is the take-out shop next door. Meat and side dishes by the pound (or other measurements) are available, as well as sandwiches. This is where I (well, gingerrose) discovered their pulled pork, which is excellent - far beyond any of their other meats I've tried. It has the right texture - much like ropa vieja in a good Cuban restaurant. It's tender, stringy, and just has that great pulled-pork mouthfeel. They also sell their excellent beans by the pint, quart, or whatever you want - that's probably all I would go back for.
Arthur Bryant's BBQ
Now we're bringing out the big guns. Arthur Bryant's is one of the two original BBQ shops in KC - Wikipedia says it's the oldest one. The decor is sort of 50s-diner-meets-sports-bar - Formica tables, with a TV (usually showing the Chiefs) in the corner, and paper towels and barbecue sauce on the tables. It seems a bit pricey at first, but only until you realize that one sandwich (about $11 including fries) comfortably feeds two people. At least, two people with the size and appetite of me and gingerrose.
Onto the food! The only thing to get here, as far as I'm concerned, is the burnt ends. They are just amazing - one of the two best meals I've had in Kansas City (the other being a bowl of pho from Hien Vuong). The burnt ends are perfectly cooked - very well done but not dry (because of all the sauce), a bit chewy from the caramelized outside, stringy and fork-tender, and utterly delicious. Their sauce - a bit salty for me, but not sweet and quite spicy - adds to the flavor. The fries are very good - a little oily, but hand-cut, crisp, and tasty. The only thing not to get is the beans - I don't know if they're from a can, but they sure taste like it - sweet and uninteresting.
Oklahoma Joe's is located in a gas station. Don't let this stop you from going there! Most people I've met here tell me this place is the best in KC. The lines attest to it - gingerrose and I went here for dinner last Friday at about 7pm, and waited 20 minutes or so to order (and it looked like it was going to be worse). The prices are certainly right - about $5 for a good-sized sandwich, and another $2.50 or so for a big bag of fries or a side of beans. The listed specialty is pulled pork, although the ribs look phenomenal (and everybody seems to have them at dinnertime), so I'm going to give them a shot next time I'm there.
I can't really put OK Joe's above Arthur Bryant's in meat or sauce. The pulled pork is good, although they don't sauce it much on a normal sandwich - they seem to have a variant including more sauce and slaw, which I'm going to try soon. Their sauces are too sweet for me, but they have a nice level of spice. The fries, though - fantastic. I'm not sure if they're hand-cut, but they're crispy and not greasy, and they have a great spice mixture (probably salt, paprika, and something else) that's sprinkled on. Plus they're served in a paper bag. What's not to love? The beans are also very good - definitely homemade, with chunks of meat and I think vegetables floating around. If you like good value, ridiculous decor, and killer fries, this is the place for you.
Gates Bar B. Q.
This is the other "original" KC barbecue joint. It's my favorite for a quick lunch or dinner, as it's the closest to home and school, and one sandwich (again burnt ends, about $7) is about two meals for me. The decor is something resembling a trolley car - it almost looks like they took an old one and built it into the building. It's not quite as grimy as Arthur Bryant's, but this seems like a very "local" place in comparison - you're expected to know what you want as soon as you walk in the door.
I can't give the food a full review because I haven't tried their beans or fries, but the meat and sauce are both fantastic. I usually eat the sandwich with a knife and fork, just cutting pieces off (bread and all) and munching on them. The sauce goes really well with the meat - not very sweet, but very flavorful - and the sandwich is well-sauced. The second half is even better the next day, when the sauce soaks into the bread a bit. The meat is not quite as amazing as at Arthur Bryant's, but is still very, very good, and the added convenience means I go here more often - it's walkable from school, which no other BBQ shop is.
Ultimately, Arthur Bryant's is my favorite, just because of the transcendent quality of their burnt ends. Their only problem is that they give you a ridiculous amount of food - next time I'll probably take it out and eat some at home, then save the rest for the next day.
Best meat: Arthur Bryant's
Best sauce: Arthur Bryant's (but Gates gives them a close run)
Best fries: Oklahoma Joe's (AB in a close second)
Best beans: Jack Stack (OK Joe's in a close second)
Best value: Gates BBQ
Best location: Gates for convenience, OK Joe's for silliness