At first glance, stocks with lofty P/E ratios such as Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE:CMG) and appear expensive. After all, they need to grow earnings quickly in order to justify the rich price tags the market has put on them.

But instead of quickly concluding that a stock is "cheap" or "expensive" based on its P/E ratio, ask yourself why the stock trades at such a high multiple. Sure, there are some stocks out there that have no reason to be expensive, but others can justify their valuations by possessing tremendous growth potential.

Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX), for example, has never traded at a P/E below 30. Investors who snubbed the stock back in 1994 when it was trading at 70 times earnings have certainly missed out on some great gains. The same can be said for (NASDAQ:AMZN) and eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY).

These stocks have never been statistically cheap, but they've produced stellar returns for investors over the years by consistently beating market expectations.

Pay up for quality
FBR Small Cap
(FBRVX) manager Chuck Akre isn't afraid of paying up for what he believes to be superior stocks. For instance, a good number of his fund's top holdings, including Penn National Gaming (NASDAQ:PENN), AES (NYSE:AES), and Markwest Hydrocarbon, have P/E ratios well above the S&P average. He's had success with this strategy, too -- his fund has posted 18.4% annualized returns over the past 10 years, turning a $10,000 investment in 1997 into a cool $54,000 today.

When Akre visited Fool HQ recently, he noted that the cheapest that the fund has been able to buy shares of CarMax (NYSE:KMX) was around 20 times earnings (today it trades near 26 times). He's willing to pay those prices for CarMax because he believes that the company's superior business model will help it generate market-beating returns for his shareholders over the long term.

Look no further
Obviously, finding bona fide value in stocks trading with high-ish valuations is the hard part. Two things to look for are companies that sell a premium service or are dominant in their market niche. Certainly Starbucks, Amazon, and eBay fit this mold.

In the same vein, Motley Fool co-founder Tom Gardner and the Motley Fool Hidden Gems team saw tremendous growth potential in back in December 2005, despite its high P/E ratio. It traded with no long-term debt and was well-positioned in the growing Chinese online travel reservation business, so Tom recommended the stock to Hidden Gems subscribers. Since then, is up 91%.

If you'd like to learn more about the other Hidden Gems picks, including and Chipotle, simply follow this link for a free 30-day trial to the service. The team has had a great track record of selecting some of the best small companies on the market -- on average, Hidden Gems picks are beating the market by more than 32 percentage points.

Todd Wenning's random '90s movie of the day is "If Looks Could Kill," starring Richard Greco. He owns shares of Starbucks. Chipotle is a Rule Breakers recommendation. Starbucks,, and eBay are Motley Fool Stock Advisor picks. CarMax is an Inside Value selection. The Fool's disclosure policy is definitely not The French Teacher.