Some companies are obviously great investments -- in hindsight. Yet for every stock out there screaming "buy me," others simply give us a nudge and a nod. How can we tell tomorrow's obviously great investments from the thousands of pretenders?

The stars' walk of fame
On Motley Fool CAPS, these opportunities can be found among our four-star stocks, companies that rank higher than most of the other 5,400 starred companies, but fall just short of a top ranking. While all the attention might be focused on their five-star peers, we can sift through CAPS to find four-star firms approaching greatness. Here are a handful of stocks that are approaching greatness.

  • Aeterna Zentaris (Nasdaq: AEZS)
  • Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO)
  • Halliburton (NYSE: HAL)
  • Hudson City Bancorp (Nasdaq: HCBK)
  • Rick's Cabaret (Nasdaq: RICK)

Some of these names might surprise you. For example, Hudson City Bancorp faced a drubbing after a surprise earnings miss brought on by high unemployment and continued housing market weakness caused them to say they might find it difficult to continue producing record level earnings. Hudson City has posted 11 straight years of record earnings and is the largest U.S. bank to refuse a government bailout. It just might still be too cheap to ignore now. Almost great? Even familiar names can still offer some of the best opportunities. Perhaps we've just forgotten the potential they still hold.

Halliburton is still in the eye of the BP oil spill storm over the cement work it did at the Macando well, but because of its massive size, it's not in danger of going under. That's been left to smaller outfits like Seahawk Drilling, which was crushed by the Obama administration's response to the spill. Yet as the 170,000-plus CAPS members have chosen these companies as less obvious sources for tomorrow's great buys, let's see why they might merit your attention.

In the sight of greatness?
Because AEterna Zentaris is closely tied to Keryx Biopharmaceuticals (Nasdaq: KERX) through its colorectal cancer drug perifosine, which it licenses to the pharmaceutical, there's bound to be some drift during this quiet time of clinical testing. Both AEterna and Keryx were hot out of the gate after receiving fast-track and orphan drug status from the FDA. Now Keryx has the drug in advanced, phase 3 clinical trials and everyone's waiting for the next development.

After both drugs hit higher plateaus in December, they've gone on to drift lower. Of course, no news doesn't mean bad news, and CAPS member Nightshaded sees AEterna with a strong portfolio to back it up:

This naughty girl has a great looking pipeline with lots of potential. Great earnings, great fundamentals, and already has a commercialized product. Just bought 1200 shares, long term this will explode.

With 96% of the 200 CAPS members rating the biotech agreeing it will outperform the market (all of the Wall Street analysts following it concur), why not inject yourself into the debate on the AEterna Zentaris CAPS page and give us your view on what the next leg up will be like.

Dirt cheap?
A look at Cisco's stock chart these days resembles a flight of stairs ... down to the basement. The once high-flying networking superstar has been pummeled at regular intervals by a market that has become as gloomy over its immediate future as the equipment maker is in its earnings guidance.

Yet despite margin pressure from Juniper Networks (Nasdaq: JNPR) and Brocade Communications, Cisco's shares have become very cheap. It trades at just 14 times trailing earnings and 10 times forward estimates, but also sports a very discounted enterprise value-to-free cash flow ratio of less than nine. It's got $40 billion in cash sitting in its bank account and just $15 billion in debt. CAPS member liftthemup thinks the market has overreacted to the dour forecast Cisco gave:

Cisco Systems stock price has been crushed due to a poor outlook and weak gross margins. In the end I think end-market demand (which will not reach the 12-17% that Chambers used to forecast) will result in increased sales and the initiation of a dividend (24-32 cents per share) will lift the stock price.

I don't expect a home run from buying Cisco but I think it will provide a decent total return (7-10% per year).

Add Cisco to the Fool's free portfolio tracker and keep an eye on all the news and analysis that develops.

On the level
Although my fellow Fool Alyce Lomax has raised socially responsible investing to an art form (her latest Rising Star portfolio pick Timberland walked all over analyst earnings expectations the other day), I'm still attracted to the dark side of investing, to the so-called sin stocks, like Rick's Cabaret, an operator of a chain of gentleman's clubs.

Rick's was spun around by the recession. The latest quarter, however, showed it was able to strut its stuff, though it was still a little wobbly. Still, it hopes that by sticking to a plan of organic growth, it can stimulate profits down the road.

94% of the 265 CAPS members rating the club operator are willing to throw dollar bills at it, rating it to outperform the broad market averages. If it's still too risky -- or risque -- for you, add Rick's to your watchlist, but make sure to head over to the Rick's Cabaret CAPS page and give your expectations for the future.

A great opportunity for you
Investor sentiment suggests these four-star investments still seem to be on their way to five-star greatness, but it pays to start your own research on these stocks on Motley Fool CAPS. Read a company's financial reports, scrutinize key data and charts, and examine the comments your fellow investors have made -- all from a stock's CAPS page.

Sign up today for the completely free service and let us hear what you have to say about the great and almost-great companies that interest you.